Outdoor Photography

Today's post comes from the book The Digital Portrait Photographer's Guide to Natural-Light Family Portraits by Jennifer George. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

There are times when working in a client’s home or at another indoor location isn’t feasible. When you are photographing a large group or want to use a more natural backdrop to create an environmental image, for instance, selecting an outdoor location might be your best option. For those who live in coastal communities, the beach is frequently the preferred session location. As J. Romero (www.rstudios.org) has noted, “The beach is an ideal location in southern California, as it is a familiar environment for the family and they are comfortable there.”

In the past, when a family wanted an environmental portrait, they wanted an image that showed how the family members look in a pretty environment. They were not interested in artistic expression, creative poses, or emotion-filled images that depicted the interrelationships of the subjects.

Allowing the family to do what they want to can lead to fun and unique images. On the facing page, we see an image created while the mom was playing with her baby in between setup shoots for the session. The family shown in the image below was asked to walk over to this location and stand any way they wanted.

Fortunately, photojournalistic coverage, which has long been popular in wedding photography, has more recently begun to influence portrait photography styles, and clients are more interested than ever in purchasing relaxed and spontaneous family portraits. A wise portrait photographer will always capture the classic, posed portrait of the family along with the contemporary, unstructured, or unprompted portrait.

In this photograph of a family staring off into the ocean, a slight vignette was added to focus the viewer’s attention on the group. The family’s white shirts tie in perfectly with the ocean’s whitewash, ultimately unifying the photograph. This image was photographed with a Nikon D2X. The exposure was 1 /160 second at f/6.3 and ISO 640

Working on location is ideal for large family groups. The traditional portrait studio normally has a 9-foot background, and posing more than five people in front of a 9-foot background is difficult—especially when you’re working with adults. When doing a consultation with a client, either in
person or on the phone, immediately find out the number of subjects, as that will help you determine your best portrait location and posing options.

Working on location has a second very important advantage: being able to sell a large wall portrait to the client. One of the most profitable products for the portrait photographer is a large wall portrait. A large wall portrait is also a good passive marketing tool, as your client’s friends and family will see your work whenever they enter your client’s home.

Find several locations in your area that are ideal for environmental family portraits. The obvious choices are nearby parks and beaches, but also look for attractive landscaping in your neighborhood, playgrounds, bike paths, historic sites, and gardens. For state-owned and historic properties, you may have to get permission and possibly a permit before the session. Don’t exclude unusual locations such as open fields, rustic buildings, urban settings, and commercial development areas.

Open Shade. Upon arriving at your location, you should immediately look for the ideal place to pose the family. Choose an area where you can control the light. In a park setting, this may be an area with a full background of trees or other pleasing structures. The location should have an open sky that will illuminate the faces of the subjects. Note that shooting later in the day will allow you to work when the sun is lower in the sky and is coming from a horizontal direction rather than from overhead. When possible, pose the subjects near a large tree or other light-blocking object. This will produce the shadow side of the face, creating a pleasing light
ratio and a dimensional look.

Fill Flash. You can create great images on location when the sun is low in the sky. When the lighting scenario is less than ideal, though, you can often improve your images by adding flash to fill in the shadows that can appear under the subject’s eyes. When faced with a scenario in which the light on the background is brighter than the light falling on your subject, using flash can also help to balance the light and produce a more even, natural look.

It can be difficult to find open shade when photographing in a park setting. However, if you wait until later in the day, the sun will be lower in the sky and behind trees or hills. Here most of the park is now in open shade due to the setting sun. To add sparkle and life to the client’s eyes, fill flash was used.

Sometimes moving your subjects to another area of the location will improve the lighting. Here, fill flash was used to open up the shadows. Note the beautiful light coming through the trees due to the setting sun.

There are several ways to set your flash for fill. J. Romero sets his Nikon flash on TTL with an exposure compensation of –3 and his camera set to aperture priority. He sets the flash to –3 because he wants to add just enough flash to light the eyes. Mike Strickland sets his flash between half and full power and uses an exposure of ISO 125, f/8, and 1 / 250.

While on location, ask the family to do several simple activities that will provide numerous photo opportunities for you. Walking along the beach, walking toward you, walking away, the children running down the beach and the parents swinging or carrying a child are all easy, informal shots.

With digital cameras, it is much easier to use fill flash correctly. Simply set your flash on manual and take a meter reading, then set your flash to 1 / 4 power to start. Take a test shot and make an adjustment if necessary. When the sun is setting, you may need to reset the flash several times to achieve a perfect balance between the client and the environment.

Sweet Light. When you are shooting outdoors, timing is everything when it comes to finding great light. In the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, the sun is low in the sky and its rays travel horizontally, rather than from overhead. Many photographers call this “sweet light.”
Depending upon the location of your shoot, you may not need to use any fill flash during this time. J. Romero has taken hundreds of family portraits at the beach over the years. He likes to shoot 20 minutes before sunset to capture that “golden light.” He feels that the shadows produced by the sun when shooting any earlier than that are too harsh. His goal is to have the client be able to comfortably look into the sun without having to use flash. He shoots most of his images at ISO 400 on aperture priority. When the sun is low, he uses an ISO of 800 with a wide-open aperture. He feels that this allows him to create the most beautiful natural light images.

Good family portraits show the love and warmth the individuals have for one another. Having the family connect and touch gives the image a circular feel that can be cropped either square or rectangular for the finished wall portrait.

On-Location Portraiture

Today's post comes from the book Off-Camera Flash: Creative Techniques for Digital Photographers by Rod and Robin Deutschmann. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

Off-camera flash photography and on-location portraiture go together like peanut butter and jelly. The options and rewards of creating light while in the field are as limitless as your imagination.

The leash has been cut. The use of off-camera flash brings with it the freedom to take our message-building skills outside—away from the stale props and overused reflectors of yesterday. Finally, our creative voice can shine unhindered as the world becomes our well-lit backdrop and our vision grows as the scenery changes.

Off-camera flash photography has brought the studio outdoors—and with it all of the options, advantages, and challenges of unrestrained light. You can now seize upon nature’s gifts or capitalize on man-made alternatives. With the aid of family and friends, even the most problematic of shoots are quickly reined in. When shooting in the city, it’s wise to stay away from the use of tripods or anything else that can impede traffic. Not only is it dangerous, but chances are that the city will require permits. Avoid the hassle and enlist some help.

As portrait photographers using off-camera flash, each new outdoor location brings with it amazing possibilities and a chance to test our skill, knowledge, and competence. Gear choice will be a testament to our adventurous side. Do we take one light connected with a cord or several and use wireless options? Do we ask friends or family to hold the gear or do we employ light stands, hand-held booms, or beanbags? Will we visit an exotic locale for the ambiance, or do we tackle the hustle and bustle of downtown? Are we up for a trip to the mountains, hauling sandbags to keep light stands from blowing away? Or do we head to the beach, wrapping each flash in its own plastic bag to protect the gear from sea spray? Creativity, as you might have guessed, may just lie in our answers to these questions.

One large softboxed flash was used to illuminate our model’s face. It was held by an assistant slightly off camera. The background, with its beautiful shapes, lines, and color, needed to be in crisp focus, so a very small aperture (f/16) was chosen. A redder-than-normal white balance was incorporated to add drama and draw attention to the model more quickly.

If you’re new to the idea of using off-camera flash for your on-location portraits then be prepared for something very special: the lights change everything. Every rule that you thought you knew now doesn’t apply. Every weather condition—rain, sunshine, muggy, cloudy, even a tropical storm— brings new opportunities and new “looks” for your message. There is no need to ever worry about having the “right” light; you’re going to be bringing it with you.With enough flashes and modification devices, you can easily replace the sun as your main light source when it’s just not cooperating, creating sunsets and mood anywhere, at any time you want. Plus, you’ll still maintain complete control over your lighting, depth of field and perspective—something that’s nearly impossible if you’re only using one on-camera flash.

Challenge yourself and your equipment whenever you shoot outdoors. If you’re comfortable using one off-camera flash, then push yourself to use two. If you use indoor studio lights, create a set for outdoors. Don’t settle for the ordinary.

Keep things extraordinarily simple at first.Master the use of one light. Learn what it takes to support it, to modify it, and how to trigger it. Use the flash both indoors and out. Demand as much from it as you do from your camera and subjects. Practice shooting with the flash set at full power, then modify it. Don’t accept a poor image. Review each shot as it is taken—and if you don’t like it, fix it right then. Each bad photo now affords you experience, so get as much of it as you can. Learn from your mistakes and make them work for you.

Two lights will always offer more options. The placement, height, angle, and power output can be adjusted independently—and you can add separate filters, gels, and modifiers. Once you’ve moved on to two flashes you will need to think about using some kind of light stand. Keep in mind that, when it comes to support, you get what you pay for. Choose a cheap stand or an inexpensive tripod and you can expect trouble. It’s best to go with a quality product rather than an inexpensive one that will break or, worse yet, fall over.

Two lights with no modification were placed at opposite sides of our model for this series of images. In the first image the lights were turned off. In the second image, the left light was turned on. In the last image both lights were fired. The differences are obvious—and very important.

Creativity in portrait photography really kicks in when you start adding several off-camera lights. You’ll eventually search out tools and accessories to make the job of holding them even easier. Get creative with your support systems. Call in favors from family and friends, ask your kids, your wife, or your husband for help. Use tools you already have, such as tripods, monopods, and beanbags. Combine your modification tools; use a snoot on one flash and a softbox on another. Change the ways you introduce light to the scene. Drag out some of that old studio equipment and modify it to suit your new outdoor needs.

Don’t be afraid to challenge the norm. If a support tool or modification contraption that you need can’t be purchased, then make one. You would be surprised at how far a few strips of Velcro, a pair of scissors, and some black foam will get you.

Light stands, sync-cords, extending handles, softboxes, snoots, reflectors, and more await. Get creative with your tools—but, more importantly, get to know them before you go out and shoot.

If you’re unaware of how powerful a polarizer is when using flash photography, then you haven’t been using one correctly. For the best results, place your lights 90 degrees from your lens to remove any glare they produce. If you mistakenly add light from the wrong direction, you will create more of a problem than any polarizer can handle. Remember, you’ll still need to turn the polarizer (no matter the type) to make it work. If you don’t, then your off-camera flash photography will always be lacking the punch that other photographers’ images have. (Note: If you’re shooting in any automatic mode, you’ll need to purchase a circular polarizer. If you’re a manual shooter who uses manual focus, either a circular or linear polarizer will work just fine.)

The top image was created with one unmodified off-camera flash placed to the right of the model. A polarizer was attached to the lens but was rotated incorrectly. In the bottom image, the exact same camera settings were used, and the same flash was fired, but the polarizer was now rotated correctly for maximum effect.

Want the most from your polarizer? Then learn to shoot in manual. Unfortunately, polarizers can’t work at 100 percent if the camera is in any automatic setting. The camera, in its attempt to capture average images, will actually fight the desirable effects the polarizer produces.


Commercial Photo Techniques

Today's post comes from the book Professional Commercial Photography: Techniques and Images from Master Photographers by Lou Jacbos Jr. In this book Jacobs profiles 10 of the leading commercial photographers working today. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers. This is an excerpt from his profile of photographer Cig Harvey.

When I was twelve years old and living in England, I read The Independent, which featured powerful black & white documentary portfolios on Sundays. I was inspired to become a volunteer in a community darkroom in southwest England. Since then photography has remained my only constant. In my twenties, I shifted from documentary photography and photojournalism to an involvement with personal fine art. While working for Mark Emmerson, an amazing platinum printer in Bermuda, I received theMaineMedia Workshops’ annual catalogs, and when Mark retired I enrolled in the Maine MFA program. Arriving there, I felt I had died and gone to photo heaven.

I was the perfect nerdy student, and I completely immersed myself in the photographic world, every genre, from historical to contemporary. I feel you have to be in photography a lifetime to do more than scratch the surface, and I am constantly amazed by the possibilities. When I graduated I had five black & white portfolios that dealt with a personal autobiographical story. I took the portfolios to New York and was lucky enough to get my first representation at the Robin Rice Gallery, where I still am today. I made a lot of valuable connections at the workshops, and each time I went to New York I met with people in all aspects of the industry, from fine art to commercial. Through these initial meetings, and by showing my fine art based portfolios, I found my way into the commercial world.

Coming into commercial photography via the fine art route is pretty unusual. My emphasis was and always will be on the ideas behind the pictures. I gave myself the gift of time during my master’s studies, having saved up enough money working three jobs prior. I spent two years committing only to personal work, which allowed me to develop a strong style. Initially, the only work in my commercial portfolio was my personal work, and fortunately people in the industry felt the work could have a commercial application in addition to fine art.

Christopher James was a mentor during my MFA era. He always questioned and pushed me to make the most conceptually powerful images possible. At the end of the day, a successful commercial photograph must contain all the same conceptual and visual elements as a fine art photograph. A good photograph transcends genres. I promoted myself by going to as many business meetings as possible, making really special one-of–a-kind leave behinds, and always sending handwritten thank-you notes.

My specialty is definitely conceptual. I love being given a story or a basic concept and brainstorming and mind-mapping it to explore different metaphors, symbols, and iconography. A good photograph is about something, not of something. I am interested in the ideas behind the images. A photograph is a visual manifestation of an idea, and I am trying to make the unseen, seen.

I very much think of myself as a photographic illustrator. I think I also specialize in color. Most of my assignments are very color driven and are normally a little quirky. I have a varied assortment of clients, ranging from high fashion with Kate Spade, to book publishers, to The Royal Shakespeare Company.

My business is a much smaller operation than most people imagine. I am a full-time associate professor at the Art Institute of Boston, so I use their C-printing facilities and run the business side of things out of my home in Boston. Last year my husband and I bought our first house in Rockport, ME. I have a specific room there that I consider my studio. It’s an attic room with sloping ceilings and walls, a blue wooden floor, papier-mâché birds and pigs, old typewriters, and a thousand inspiring things Scotch-taped to the walls. It is a real gift to finally have a space to spread out that I don’t have to clean up regularly.

On assignment-based jobs, I typically work with a film crew rather than using a traditional photo setup. We use HMIs to augment daylight and grip equipment (reflectors, flags, screens) to control, bend, and shape the light. This equipment is the same for studio and location assignments, and it comes from my back-ground in fine art, making autobiographical pictures, when I could choose the time of day (the right light and weather) to make pictures. You don’t have that luxury with commercial work since so many people are typically involved. I really like to see the effects of light, which is why strobes feel alien to my work.

My favorite thing to do on a day off is to go treasure shopping. I hunt for unusual props and clothes of certain colors and patina that will eventually appear in my pictures. I work on the sets myself or work very closely with the set designer/prop stylist. Set design is a major factor in my photographs. People sometimes think that it is the type of film I use that creates the intense color in my pictures, but often it is the styling that gives my images their intensity.

I am constantly searching for locations that inspire the imagination. I have a virtual scrapbook in my head filled with different spaces that could potentially work in a picture. I like to get to know these spaces well and see them in different kinds of light and weather to get a true sense of their potential.My favorite type of light to work in is overcast daylight. I love even, beautiful light with a full tonal range that allows my subjects to glow and offers me the possibility of adding a little sparkle here and there with reflectors. I work in color negative film and like to overexpose it a few stops, so contrasty light situations are tricky for me.

Weather can be an issue on location. During a snowstorm, my crew built a tent for me to shoot from to keep the camera dry. There is never a dull moment. We laugh a lot on the set. When we are laughing, we are being creative. We love constantly trying out new ideas.My assistants are all visual artists whom I greatly admire, and I welcome their ideas. I usually work with the same core group of hardworking people, and I also like hanging out with them after we have wrapped up.

In regards to settings and sets, I like to give the illusion of simplicity. I think a strong photograph should feel like it was made effortlessly, though this can oftentimes be opposite of the truth. I don’t like to show my hand.

When I photograph people on assignment, it is always for editorial or advertising work. I like the challenge of this work; I enjoy thinking fast to find the best environment, atmosphere, and the most conducive light to convey the person or story I am photographing. I also make pictures every week purely for myself with the goal of using them in the current fine art portfolio—there is always one I am working on. It is very important to me to maintain a balance between work I am doing for others and for myself.

I have no special setup for photographing glass or reflective materials other than being very aware of what is being reflected and moving things for corrections. Often when I am working, I will hear the art directors on the set talking about how they fix things in postproduction. I hate that idea. I love to get the image just right in-camera. I guess I am just an old-school type of girl.

I leave the clients’ presence on a shoot totally up to them. I can work with or without them. In any case, I try to create a fun set with laughter and intelligent conversation. What I love the most about commercial work is the opportunity to meet, work with, and spend time with creative people, from the art directors, to the subjects, to the set stylists, to hair and makeup

I like slow sets, and because I use a slow film and no strobes, it limits how fast things can move. I always sit down with the models or subjects before I start shooting and talk about the nature of the shoot and my expectations. I also let crew and/or clients know that we are going to do the safe shots and then play, get creative, and see what happens. Often the best images come during this time.

I do hire models. I like to work with high-end models and actors, but I also like to photograph normal people such as friends, people I meet on the street, or friends of friends. The sort of in-between area in posing tends to get strange for me. When models try too hard or are concerned with how they look, it makes for awkward pictures.

I typically handle almost everything myself, but I employ a couple of amazing people on a freelance basis to help me with some postproduction operations. I have no full-time studio manager. I send clients the contact sheets and prints that I make in the darkroom.

I am lucky enough to have an amazing agent,Marilyn Cadenbach, who takes care of all the contracts, invoicing, and legal issues. The contracts stipulate usage rights and terms. I typically work for a creative fee rather than a day rate.

I meet with my accountant once a year, and I now have a bookkeeper who works on a regular basis, so at the end of year the work doesn’t seem so overwhelming. I am dyslexic with numbers and dislike doing the financial side of business, so a bookkeeper is a wise investment in terms of time and my personal happiness. I need to concentrate on making pictures rather than doing paperwork.

A photographer’s personality is absolutely an essential part of his or her success. I try to meet with potential and existing clients all the time, and I would much prefer to go with my portfolio than to send it by messenger. Clients like to know that the photographer they are going to be working with is cool. Nobody likes to work with difficult people or drama queens.

For me, finding the balance between commercial, fine art, and teaching is often difficult. Yet all three are fundamental to my happiness. These disciplines feed off of each other, and I feel so very lucky to be involved in them all. The best advice I could give anyone going into commercial photography is to make your work first and foremost. Find your voice in the process and then find the niche in which to market it. No matter which photographic specialty you choose, your work has to come first.


Psychology of a Photography Session

Today's post comes from the book How to Create a High Profit Photography Business In Any Market, 2nd Edition by James Williams. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

Creating a genuine interest in your client when they come in for a photography session can pay big dividends when it comes time for them to place their order.

At our studio, we try to pamper the client as soon as he or she pulls into the parking area. If it is raining when the client arrives, someone will greet them outside with a large umbrella and escort them to the door. We also help them carry any items they may have brought for their session.

As the client approaches the door to the studio, the first thing she notices is her name on a marquee sign near the entrance welcoming her to our studio. The door to the studio is beautiful; it has a very rich look and feel to it. I have visited studios with dirty, squeaky, front doors covered with photography association stickers from years past. I’ve been at some studios where you have to jiggle the doorknob just right to get into the place!

Once the client has entered the studio, we guide her to the dressing room. On the dressing room door, there is a small framed sign with a mini spotlight shining on it that says “This dressing room reserved for [client’s name].” Once again, we are creating excitement even before the session begins. Inside the dressing room there are two mirrors mounted on the walls, a full-length mirror on the door, a bench built into one of the corners, clothing hooks, a clock mounted on the wall, and an electrical outlet for a curling iron, hot rollers, etc.

Learning about your subject’s interests will allow you to interact with him or her more naturally, and this will help you produce images that have meaning to the client. This, in turn, will help you to increase your sales.

Once the client has everything situated in the dressing room, I review the clothing and props that they have brought in and ask if there is a certain pose, prop etc., that they would like. Some clients request a certain pose or prop but most leave it all up to me.

Once we have the clothing changes in place, we start the session. I always shoot with the room lights low so that I can see the lighting effect that the modeling lights are creating on the subject. This also creates very nice mood lighting and makes the client feel special.

From the moment the client sits on the posing stool I explain what I am doing and why I am doing it. It is important for the subject to know exactly when you are going to take the photograph. Nothing can be worse than sitting on the posing stool with no idea what the photographer is doing or when the camera is going to fire.

A great expression is key to creating salable images. This image shows a white birch that has served as a framing element for many senior portraits. The trunk focuses the viewer’s gaze on the subject’s smiling face.

Constant conversation with your client is essential for good expressions, so find out what interests your client and ask engaging questions. Establishing a bond with your subject will increase the subject’s comfort level, and their relaxed demeanor will result in better, more genuine poses and expressions in the final prints.

I find it easy to communicate with my clients, especially the high school seniors. Seniors are very savvy. They can tell in a heartbeat if you are not trying to form a genuine bond with them.

Remember that if the client leaves the session liking you, there’s a pretty good chance that they will like the pictures you took of them and will be more likely to show their appreciation in the sales room.

A high camera angle helped to create this dramatic image. A projection box was used to create the white dots in the background.

It’s difficult to teach you personality from a book. The hard facts are that people who have a wonderful personality are probably going to succeed at about anything. Before I got into photography, I was very fortunate in my career at General Motors to be around some extremely talented managers. With very few exceptions the people who rose to the top were not only exceptionally bright but had a great personality. They just had the knack for getting people to do their jobs—and enjoy them as well. What does this have to do with photography? Plenty! A photographer with great people skills has a much better chance to succeed. Not only will his clients be happy, but he will have employees who enjoy working for him. What a combination for success!

Creating a relaxing mood at your studio will help your subjects be more relaxed in front of the camera.

Much of the overall atmosphere of your studio is created by you and your staff. As the studio owner, your outlook will impact your employees. If you are a warm, fuzzy, easygoing person, your staff will be pleasant too. If you are uptight and unpleasant, you’ll find that your employees will feel the same way.

When your client enters your studio it must be clean and well lit, and it should even smell good. We have a liquid fragrance we put in a heat ring on one of our lamps that emits a pleasant scent that you notice as soon as you walk into the lobby.

A fish-eye lens was used to create the distortion in this unique sports shot.

Be sure to have comfortable chairs for your customers to sit in when they are placing their orders or waiting to be photographed. (Hopefully nobody is waiting more than a few minutes.) We have cushioned arm chairs around a large table for our clients to view and place their orders. When clients come into your studio to place their order, you want them to be as comfortable as possible. I remember once going into a studio and seeing a counter where the customers stood the whole time placing their photography order. Talk about how not to do something! Your furniture does not have to be expensive, but at least be sure that it’s comfortable.

Here, the 3:1 lighting ratio on the face, beautiful hair lighting, and a dark background added up to an outstanding photo.

Visit other facilities and take note of the layout, furniture, and the general cleanliness. You will be surprised at what you notice when you’re really looking.

Clothing and Background Selection

Don't forget to check our newest blog The Lighting Photographer. Like this blog, it features mountains of information, technique and hopefully, inspiration for the serious photographer. Along with our regular postings, all of our blogs will begin to mix in exclusive info and photos from some of the finest professional photographers working today. And we welcome your insight, let us know what you'd like to see on our blogs. Leave a comment and let us know what interests you.

Today's post comes from the book Corrective, Lighting Posing & Retouching for Digital Portrait Photographers, 3rd Edition by Jeff Smith. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

In order to effectively conceal your clients’ flaws, they must be wearing the right clothing and you must select the right background. If their clothes are a poor style or color choice, or fit poorly, you may face insurmountable issues when it comes to applying corrective techniques. With your client in the right clothes, however, you’ll be able to achieve much more flattering results.

Probably the best advice I can give you in regard to your clients’ clothing is to have them bring in everything for you to look at. I am not kidding. We tell our seniors to bring in everything, and they do. The average girl brings in ten to twenty-five outfits; the average guy brings five to ten. By doing this, you always have other choices when a favorite outfit is a bad choice for a particular subject.

Pairing light clothes with lighter settings (and dark clothes with darker settings) helps keep the emphasis on the face. It also makes it easier to disguise common figure problems by letting the body blend in with the background.

Long Sleeves. We stress the importance of bringing in the proper styles of clothing.We suggest long sleeves for all portraits that are to be taken from the waist up. Large arms are much less noticeable in a full-length pose, so short sleeves are less of a problem in these portraits.

Black Clothing. We also suggest that anyone who worries about weight should bring in a variety of darker colors of clothing and several choices that are black. Black clothing is amazing. It will take ten to thirty pounds off of anyone who wears it, provided you use common sense and pair it with a black or very dark background. If you are photographing a family and Dad has a “beer belly,” ask him to wear a black sweater. Unless his stomach is huge, it will appear flat in the final portrait. If Mom has larger hips, put her in a black skirt or dress and she will appear noticeably thinner.

Black is flattering on everyone.

High Heels. Anytime a woman will be in a dress, we ask her to bring in the highest heel she owns to wear with it. If she doesn’t have any three-inch heels, she can borrow them from a friend. If the legs are showing, pantyhose should be worn unless the subject has very tan legs with great muscle tone. The nylons will not only make the legs look better by darkening them, but will make them appear firmer and disguise signs of cellulite.

High heels make the legs look more toned and shapely.

With clothing, the easiest way to know what to do is to know what not to do. If you think in terms of all the problems that clothing can create for your clients and then help them avoid these problems, you will learn how to use your clients’ clothing to make them look their best. Here are
some common problems that should be avoided.

Too-Tight or Too-Loose Clothing. We warn clients against wearing jeans or pants that are too tight around the waist. These create a roll where the tight waistband cuts into the stomach. Tight clothing also affects the subject’s ability to pose comfortably. I have had some subjects turn beet red because of tight pants as they try to get into a pose. For this reason, we ask all of our clients to bring in a comfortable pair of shorts (or, in the winter, sweatpants), to make it as easy as possible to get into the poses that won’t show areas below the waist.

If women have a frequent problem with tight jeans, guys (especially young guys) have the baggies. This cool-looking (so they think) style has the crotch that hangs down to their knees, while at the same time revealing undergarments to the world. Just try to pose a client in a seated position when there are three yards of material stretched out between his legs! Try to have him put his hands in pants pockets that are hanging so low he can’t even reach them.

In general, clothing that is loose-fitting on a person who is thin or athletic will add weight to the person in the portrait, especially if it is loose at the waist or hips. Tight clothing will add weight to those people who are heavier. With tight clothing on a heavy person you can see tummy bulges, cellulite, lines from waistbands, and every other flaw that weight brings to the human body.

Wrong Undergarments. Many women forget to bring in the proper undergarments. They bring light-colored clothing, but only have a black bra and underwear. They bring in a top with no straps or spaghetti straps and they don’t have a strapless bra. In this case, they either have to have the straps showing or not wear a bra, which for most women isn’t a good idea.

Advise your subjects to bring the correct undergarments for each outfit. For example, strapless dresses require strapless bras.

Guys are no better. I can’t count the number of times I have had a guy show up with a dark suit and nothing but white socks. Some men (okay, most men) tend to be more sloppy than women, which means that the clothing they bring often looks like it has been stored in a big ball at the bottom of their closet for the last three months. Many show up with clothing that used to fit ten years ago when it was actually in fashion.

Ever since I first started learning photography, I’ve been told to separate my subject from the background. “Only mall studios or underclass photographers let a person blend into a background!” is what many people will tell you.

To some degree this is true; you won’t sell portraits that appear to be two eyes and teeth coming out from a dark background. On the other hand, creating complete separation between the subject and the background is just as wrong—at least when you’re trying to correct the flaws that most of our paying clients have.

Instead, you should separate only what you want the viewer to notice, then coordinate everything else—allowing the problem areas blend into the background and disappear from view.

When the clothing and background blend tonally, the emphasis is on the subject’s face.

Let’s consider an example. A young lady comes to you for portraits. She is in perfect shape and wants an image for her husband to show her perfect curves. What do you do? You contrast or separate her entire body to focus attention on every one of those curves she wants her husband to see. If she were in a tight white dress, you would contrast it with a dark background; if she were in black, you would contrast it with white, drawing the viewer’s eye right to the dress and the outline of her body.

Your next session also wants a portrait for her husband (it must be close to Valentine’s Day!), but this young lady is overweight. While she does have a small waist, her hips and thighs are very large. To create a salable full-length pose for client number two, you will have to separate her very small waist while coordinating the area of the hips and thighs. This would be achieved by having her dress in black (or another darker color), then photographing her against a dark background. You would use a very small background light at her waist level to separate only the outline of her waist, while allowing the background to fall off to back to black behind her hips and thighs (so the dress and the background blend together). Of course, you would also use separation light to define the hair and probably the shoulders—unless there were any other problems to hide.

Increasing the contrast between the background and the clothing puts more emphasis on the figure.

The single biggest hurdle in the concept of separation or coordination is the client’s clothing. If it’s right, amazing corrections are possible. The black sweater or shirt is to the corrective photographer what liposuction is to the plastic surgeon. It’s amazing what’s possible! You can put an overweight woman (or dear old Dad, who looks like he’s nine months along and expecting twins) in a black shirt and pants and create images that will impress them.

Controlling separation lets you keep the viewer’s eyes right where you want them.

At the heart of this matter, the issue is control. Without control of the session, you cannot control the outcome of the final portraits, which means you can’t control making the sale, which in turn makes it impossible to control not living below the poverty line.

I’ll say it again: without control over your session you have no control over your business—and most people leave this profession, one that they dearly love, because their business is out of control. So this is important stuff!

To realize how far outside of the normal business world many photographers are, let’s apply the practice of many photographers to another profession. You show up on the morning of your scheduled surgery. They have shaved your head, your wife is crying, and your family and friends have filled the waiting room as the head surgical nurse comes up to you and says, “I bet you’re hungry after not eating since last night! No worries—you’ll wake up to some great hospital food.” (She’s a real joker!) You respond, “Oh no, my wife made me a big breakfast this morning. She says it might be my last!” You see your nurse’s face become a little tense. She says, “Didn’t they tell you not eat before coming in? Those idiots always forget! We are going to have to reschedule your surgery!”

Now, you might be thinking that this is big leap—from a life-and-death surgery to a simple picture—but is it? People take time off work to come to your studio to create an image that, in most cases, will be handed down through the generations. This “simple picture” is what people will go running into a burning home to save. Failing to inform your client properly of what they need to do to prepare for their session is irresponsible—just like the failure to tell the patient not to eat before surgery. This would never happen in medicine, but it happens every day, in every city, in our profession.

To control the clothing your client brings in, simply make a brochure or a few well-designed sheets with images showing what to do (a nice portrait in the proper clothing) and what not to do (a bad choice of clothing and a bad portrait as the result). I guarantee you that if you show your clients a woman with large arms in a sleeveless top and that same woman in a black, long-sleeve blouse or sweater, you won’t have to worry about sleeveless tops anymore. Women, when they are shown what to do and are able to see the difference the correct clothing can make in their appearance, will listen to your suggestions.

Without control of the session, you cannot control the outcome of the final portraits—or the sale.

These photographic illustrations of correct choices and incorrect choices in clothing photos should include: long sleeves vs. sleeveless (make sure the lady has very large arms); proper-fitting vs. too-tight shirts (showing rolls and bulges); solids vs. horizontal stripes; dark clothing vs. light clothing; skirts/dresses vs. slacks/pants; heels (three-inch or higher) vs. flats; and proper-fitting vs. too-tight jeans(cutting into waist). I’d also include a series of photos with the client in a black top (coordinating with a darker background and contrasting with a lighter background) and in a white top (coordinating with a white background and contrasting with a black background). You should include every common problem you have seen and had to deal with in your past clients.

This is the first step to controlling your session. You and your clients want the same thing: a beautiful, final portrait that they will happily hand over a big stack of money to own. Once you educate your clients—and quit blaming them—you can start enjoying the process of creating their images.