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Photographing portraits in a studio

Photographing portraits in a studio - With the days getting colder and the nights drawing in, Michael Alan Bielat takes us indoors to shoot some portraits.

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Category : Portraits and People
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With winter approaching, more people will be heading indoors but this doesn't mean you have to stop looking for ways to bring your portraits to life. Of course, if you have a willing subject you can brave the cold and venture outside to capture some great winter imagery. But if the cold isn't for you, then going indoors works very well at this time of year too.
Baby portrait in a hat and scarf

When it comes to creating unique, full of life portraits, props and backgrounds always help. By purchasing a new backdrop each year, Michael has managed to build up quite a collection and can offer a variety of textures and colours to his clients. Another way Michael creates more creativity is through his lighting.

"If you want to really be creative then you can take down your lights and come up with new ways to work with them," explained Mike. "Using different lighting techniques can really change the way your studio shots look. I say this because it is very easy to set up your lights and keep them there; we get busy so we can easily get caught up in quantity not quality. Maybe just turn on one light or incorporate different modifiers into your set-up. When you move them around and find unique ways to use them, then you will really be taking your photography to the next level."

Michael uses a lighting set-up that can be used in the tightest of places and be put together within fifteen minutes. Michael's used one light set-ups for some time now and his goal is to provide enough light to fill-in the subject so he can keep the background colour and detail. His typical set-up can either be with a main and fill light or with just one light, using a reflector as a fill light. He does have a strobe but this is only used as a hair light to provide just a kiss of light on the hair to give it shine and a little rim lighting. A light modifier such as barn doors or a snoot are great for hair lights because they centralise the light into a very directional beam. He also tries to not make it look like he's used a flash. This is done by diffusing the light as well as using the zoom feature of the Speedlight to shoot forward more so it hits the subject but doesn't spill around everything else.

Softboxes are Michael's primary choice but umbrellas work really well too. He typically uses a translucent white umbrella which he shoots the flash through.

"I have everything from snoots, soft boxes, umbrellas and reflectors. Different tools for different jobs. I would rather have them and not need them to not have them and need them."

If you don't have much space, don't panic! Michael's set a studio up in a walk in closet before so space shouldn't be an issue. All you really need to make good photos in tight spaces is a shallow depth of field.

"If you have very powerful strobes then you may not be able to dial them down to produce f/2.8 so that will be problematic. If your subject is practically leaning against your backdrop and you are shooting at f/8 or f/11 then you will see every wrinkle of that backdrop. You can also save space by using a reflector as your fill light rather than using a second strobe. It is all a matter of light ratios to create dramatic lighting so just play with the location of things and move them until you have a desired lighting ratio."

Michael says Speedlights are handy in tight spaces - equipping them on a gorrilla pod, clamp or small light stand will mean they take up little room. Speedlights are powered by 4 or 5 AA batteries and they can be dialled down to produce very little light if needed. Set the speedlights off to manual mode and fire them with PocketWizards or Skyports and you're good to go.

Of course, you can light a scene all you want but without a subject and without direction, you wont produce the perfect portraits you're looking for. Michael always works with his clients to come-up with a general idea for the shoot and they go from there. His shoots also revolve around candid moments which means supplying props his clients can interact with. This can often produce shots full of real smiles and laughs but some people won't like or feel comfortable left to their own devices and will need guidance.

"I have some clients who need to take more direction than others and I have some who can just go off on their own and make awesome moments without me having to do anything except shoot," explained Michael. "I have to roll with the punches here and make some game time decisions on what will make the best picture. I chat during the downtime of a shoot (i.e. clothing changes, lens changes, light setups, etc.) and if I'm shooting children then I have to make a good first impression and gain their trust by playing with them and being funny."
Baby in portrait shoot wearing hat and scarf set

Mike's pose ideas are based around concepts. He creates triangles or figure-of-eights in his images. These are desirable patterns that help move the viewers eye across the image. If you have one subject, then use their feet or arms in such a way so that it creates a triangle. The same goes for a family photo. You can use the heads, bodies and heights to create triangles. Another good rule to tell your subjects is: if it can bend, bend it! Nothing is worse than a stiff lifeless pose.

When it comes to camera settings, Mike says you have to be aware of your shutter speed and ensure that it doesn't go faster than your camera's maximum sync speed. Otherwise, all your images will have a black bar across them. This is a result of your shutter curtain closing before your flash hits the entire image. He also shoots in RAW so if post processing is needed, the files don't contain any of the in-camera shooting modes like JPEG files do. However, in Lightroom, Mike uses his inLIGHTin'ed Lightroom pre-sets with batch processing and the rest is history. He has various presets so he can add effects or just do minor tweaks such as white balance and contrast. From there, any touch-ups or advanced techniques are done in Photoshop.

Visit inLightin workshops for more information.

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