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|Category:||Portraits and People|
The 5 minute portrait - How do you take a good portrait in just five minutes? Sam Furlong tells us how.
A large part of my job revolves around this type of portraiture, not in a studio but out on location, making do with what is there already and often under severe time pressure.
Sometimes you can be very lucky and find somewhere that has lovely backgrounds and lots of nice natural light and a subject who is in a good mood and has plenty of time for you. Other times you will be presented with an understandably moody celebrity who has been pushed from pillar to post all day, is surrounded by an army of the dreaded pr people and to top it all, an uninspiring backdrop/ambient lighting set-up and not much time to work with.
This situation only requires a little pre planning combined with an awareness of your surroundings to overcome. Many amateurs and professionals could benefit from the lessons we can learn from these experiences.
Recently I was despatched to Cheltenham to cover the towns' annual literature festival for The Times who sponsor the event. Usually, it attracts a decent clutch of celebrities and authors and this year was no different. After meeting up with the journalists and deciding who we would cover I started to nag the pr people for a short slot with each of my chosen victims. Usually I push for 5-10 minutes with a person if they are busy, knowing full well that it will end up being 2 or 3.
This short timeslot means that I need to be prepared so doing too much with elaborate lighting set-ups is usually out. With this in mind I go equipped as follows:
- 1 x Canon 1DMkIII with 16-35mm f/2.8 L
- 1x Canon 1DMkIII with 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS
The first task is to decide on the picture I want. The background, and how I am going to light it. The ‘green room’ (which is not actually green) is pretty decent here, in one part there is the old Georgian architecture very much in evidence with nice large windows letting in lots of natural light and in another part there is a tent like theme going on with an eclectic mix of furniture and décor. It is very tempting to shoot everything in here but as the week progresses everything will start to look a bit samey. Part of my decision is based upon exactly where the person will be and their walking route to and from the auditorium/dressing rooms. Any walking time to my chosen location cuts into my shooting time so I try to plan my location partly based upon this, sometimes just plumping for their dressing room if I am very time pressured. Most of this is done unconsciously as I arrive at a venue and am shown round by the press liason etc.
When a subject arrives they usually have a number of engagements. First and formost they usually want a cup of tea and a 5 minute sit down after their journey, next is usually a sound check in the hall or theatre they will be speaking in. The sound check usually provides a good opportunity for a few on stage candid pictures with the 70-200mm or a 300mm f/2.8. Usually I use available light here as it’s less intrusive and modern cameras can generally cope with the mix of colours of the stage lights. After soundcheck there is usually a few minutes to steal them for some posed pictures.
After soundcheck, the rest of the photographers are sent away but as I am working for the Times I am afforded backstage access which allows me to pursue my quarry into the dressing room area and pester for that couple of minutes 1-on-1 that I really want in order to get something different to the rest of the snappers.
Next on my list are Robert Vaughn and Cherie Blair. They are arriving at a similar time so I need to shoot them in essentially the same location. Robert arrives first and I have found a nice spot in a quiet corner of the green room. I am hoping to have time for 2 set-ups here, one in a chair and one refelected in the mirror. For the first shot in the chair, I get the 24-70mm from my bag and use on camera flash bounced off the ceiling behind me. I set the camera and flash to manual and set-up my exposure and white balance using a colleague as a stand in model. For the second shot in the mirror I use a flash on a stand to one side of the subject with a stofen diffuser on and stand back using the 70-200mm lens to stack up the perspective, again, this shot is set up beforehand using a member of the festival staff as a stand in model. I shoot a pretty similar set of pictures on each of them, taking only 2-3 minutes over each set. They seem to appreciate me being quick and efficient and we all leave happy.
|Robert Vaughn's reflection.||Robert Vaughn.|
|Cherie Blair.|| Cherie Blair's reflection.
For all of these pictures, things have gone more or less to plan, but what happens when you are forced to change plans last minute? This is where an understanding of lighting comes in, the ability to think on the fly and sort of make it up as you go along. This happened to me later in the week with two of my intended subjects.
The first was Dame Judi Dench, she arrived not long before her slot on stage after quite a journey. Before soundcheck I was informed that there was unlikely to be any time to get any pictures of her before she went on and I did not have time to hang around for the end. I decided that something had to be done so I asked her to pose for a few pictures there and then. While they conducted soundcheck I set-up a single speedlight on a stand pointed at a seat in the auditorium where I wanted her to sit. I left the camera on aperture priority with minus a stop of exposure compensation dialled in to take account of the relatively dimly lit background and stop it overexposing. The white balance is on cloudy to allow some of the colours of the ambient light to come through. As before, a decent contribution from the flash will ensure that the colours in the subject are more or less correct. I take a number of portraits on a 16-35mm lens, getting in some background for context with a nice spot of slight sidelighting from the off camera flash. I do not use a diffuser here as I want to give it that slightly hard stage lighting effect and bring out a bit of the texture in Dame Judi’s skin to get that less stage managed, less polished look, more real if you will. Happy enough with those I begin to pack away my kit ready to head to another location for my next victim. Whilst packing up I look round to see that she is still sitting there, looking up at the stage just having a moments rest. My flash is still in position on the stand as I haven’t got around to retrieving it yet. I put the wireless unit on the camera attached to the 70-200mm and fire off a few candids. Obviously she realises after the first couple and looks over, I get a few nice ones but my favourite was the first one where she was caught unaware.
|Dame Judi Dench.|| Dame Judi Dench caught unaware.
The next problems arose while trying to photograph Stephen Fry, one of my favourites. He arrived in a timely fashion and was immediately surrounded by pr people trying to dictate what he will and won’t do, generally without asking him. A few candids in soundcheck with on camera flash and a long lens resulted in some passable but uninspiring pictures so I took matters into my own hands. When everyone had returned backstage to allow the theatre to fill and wait to be called to the stage and when backs were turned I just knocked on his door.
"Hello Stephen, I’m Sam from the Times…."
"Oh poor you, never mind what can I do for you?"
"...err... yes... I was wondering if you have a minute for a couple of pictures before you go on?"
"Yes sure, where would you like to do it?"
(I hadn’t thought this far ahead, not really expecting him to agree…)
"err… in here will do the trick…I think..."
I knew I didn’t have long to work but happily I already had some passable, if rather ordinary, pictures in the bag so I set straight about getting one or two nice ones.
The contrast looks good but my main problem is now colours. The incandesent bulbs and my flash head are very different colour temperatures resulting in a half yellow picture because of the bulbs if I use a daylight white balance, or a half blue one because of the flash if I use tungsten white balance. Ideally I would like to nip next door where I have stupidly left my bag and grab one of my orange coloured gels to fit over the flash. This would effectively change the colour of the flash to more or less match the ambient light, allowing me to shoot on tungsten white balance and have a nice uniform colour over the frame but I know I do not have time for that. I risk him needing to go if I waste time doing that so I have to compromise.
Auto White balance seems to get it somewhere in the middle, neither side is totally correct but equally neither is so far out that I cannot pull it back in Photoshop. I shoot on auto, getting his reflection in the dressing room mirror and managing to cut out a lot of the clutter in the dressing room by using a wide lens but going in quite close to him, blotting out most of what is behind him – I don’t have time to do any tidying up. After all that messing around with colours, I later decide I prefer it in mono anyway.
| Stephen Fry.
"After all that messing around with colours, I later decide I prefer it in mono anyway."
Next, an easy one! One of the people talking at the festival is one who has probably made as great a contribution to this country as any of the celebrities but who you would pass in the street. His name is Captain Gerry Roberts, together with a couple, Sheila and Robert Lawn, he worked at Bletchley Park during WWII breaking Nazi codes. In fact, it was here that Mr and Mrs Roberts first met. I had initially overlooked this event as a possible story, although I did intend to go and listen to their talk. Beforehand I saw them sat talking and thought it would be worth a few pictures. They were all sat together near a big window letting in lots of nice natural light so I went over and introduced myself. I elected to photograph Captain Roberts separately to Mr and Mrs Lawn. The set up was exactly the same for both shots. A 70-200mm lens set at f/2.8, ISO800 to ensure a decent shutter speed and no flash, just window light. The pictures took a couple of minutes to do and I was happy with the results.
|Sheila and Robert Lawn.|
|Captain Gerry Roberts.|
|Sir James Dyson.|
|Sir James Dyson.|
I ran through a set of pictures and poses with the PA. Shooting on two camera bodies with a 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses I systematically started on the short lens doing a horizontal format image, wide, slightly closer, then zoomed in all the way, varying the poses slightly in between. This was repeated with the camera turned into a portrait (upright) format and then again with the other camera fitted with the 70-200mm. Finally, I did a few pictures without the invention in frame which would be good as stock.
With everything ready he was called away from his work to do his bit. A nice chap but obviously I had caught him on a very, very busy day. I ran through my set that I had practised with his PA and produced a dozen pictures in a variety of formats and poses in 5 minutes. He left as swiftly as He’d arrived and I packed up. It would have been nice to have a bit longer and try one or two different backgrounds but I was confident that I would have something suitable for most page layouts and eventualities, after all, they are only going to use one picture.
|Sir James Dyson with his latest invention.|
Visit Sam Furlong's website.