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How to capture perfect portraits when you're limited on time.

How do you take a good portrait in just five minutes? Sam Furlong tells us how.

|  Portraits and People
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The idea for this article came from a recent pro critique I gave where there was a potentially lovely subject of a Thai boxer shot out in Thailand in one of their gyms. It looked like the photographer had used his camera on program with flash as the background was completely lost and the boxer was slightly ‘hot’, not quite burnt out but nearly. It really smacked of an opportunity missed and it could so easily have been different with a little more thought.

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 camera with the longer lens has a side flash bracket on so I can shoot in portrait format with on camera flash without getting flash shadow. The camera with the 16-35mm on is equipped either with a pocketwizard multimax or a canon ST-E2 infared transmitter to remotely trigger a separate Canon 580EX speedlight which is mounted on a small, lightweight flash stand. This set-up enables me to use either on or off camera flash with either body very quickly so that I can get 4 or 5 pretty different looking shots out of one set up, varying poses slightly in between. I also tend to have with me a bag containing a 300mm f/2.8 L IS and a 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens, along with a laptop and a few spares such as batteries/cards etc.

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.

Jeremy Paxman
 Jeremy Paxman.
To kick off the festival I have to photograph Jeremy Paxman, presenter of Newsnight, himself a former journalist. He is a bit prickly today and in the sound check I am joined by my colleagues from a number of other newspapers and agencies so any thoughts of a nice 1-to-1 with some nice lighting go out of the window for now. I pick up my camera with the 70-200mm attached and shoot away as he runs (reluctantly) through a few poses in his chair on stage for us. Shooting indoors in a large space like this will result in a dark background as the flash falls off if you use program. I use a high ISO and aperture priority and set the exposure on camera as if I were shooting without flash. Then I turn on the flash and set it to minus 2/3 of a stop. This has the lovely effect of cleaning up the colours on the subject nicely who is illuminated by the flash but the background (which is out of flash range) is left to the ambient lights and the warmer oranges start to come out and the picture retains the atmosphere of the auditorium whilst the subject is nicely lit and the skin tones are the correct colour.

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.

Jeremy Paxman in dressing room
 Jeremy Paxman.
I head back to the dressing rooms in the backstage area and bide my time until he has had a coffee and appears relaxed. Then I ask him if I can do a few better portraits, he reluctantly agrees. Having set up a flashgun on a stand in an adjacent dressing room I take him next door and get a few nice shots looking in the mirror with the flash pointed up into the opposite corner of the small white room, creating a shadowless, quite high key effect. The pictures are alright but nothing special until he looses patience and snaps at me to ‘get on with it’, resulting in the nice scowl in this picture.

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 Robert Vaughn sat down
 Robert Vaughn's reflection.  Robert Vaughn.
Cherie Blair sat down Cherie Blair
 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 portrait
 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.

Stephen Fry in his dressing room
 Stephen Fry.
The dressing room was very small and lit by nasty strip lights which, as well as being quite flat and uninspiring, can give horrible green casts to your pictures. I always try to have as few different types of light source in a picture as I can, unless I am doing it for effect. I turned these off and put on the lights around the dressing room mirrors. I tried a few frames on tungsten white balance, lit solely by these and whilst they looked like things were progressing in the right direction, the contrast was too much. I put a flash on the camera and pointed it sideways away from Stephen to bounce off the wall to just try to take the contrast down a little whilst still allowing the dressing room lights to provide most of the light, and the atmosphere.

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 in his dressing room black and white shot
 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
 Sheila and Robert Lawn.
Sheila and Robert Lawn in colour

Captain Gerry Roberts second portrait
 Captain Gerry Roberts.
Captain Gerry Roberts
Finally, a good example in getting the most out of a situation. To produce a good set of relatively different images does not require a lot of time or different set-ups, just a bit of careful planning. I had been sent to Malmesbury in Wiltshire to the HQ of Dyson to photograph British inventor Sir James Dyson with his latest invention, a bladeless desk fan which he was unveiling to the world in America later that afternoon. He was Getting on a plane to LA a few hours later so I really didn’t have much time to mess him around. I was met by his PA and shown around a few possible locations for a picture.

Sir James Dyson with his new fan
 Sir James Dyson.
I quickly settled on a corner of his office where he keeps a large old style drawing board for decorative purposes, everything now being done with the aid of CAD programs. I asked for a few of the designs for the new device to be printed to go on the board as this would be my background. I set up a table in front of the board and placed the new gadget on it and got his PA to sit in while I got the light set up. I decided to use a single flash off to the left of the frame with a small diffuser on which would take the edge off the shadows but still give a directional feel to the light and a bit of modelling on his face. On the right was a large ceiling to floor window which this time would be my secondary light source, filling in the shadows and illuminating the background. I underexposed on the camera by 2/3 of a stop to lend more weight to the flash light allowing it to overpower the daylight and also stopping the white paper on the drawing board from burning out. I set my exposure in manually and set the white balance to cloudy. I use cloudy as my general purpose setting because it is the closest thing to daylight balanced film.
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 shot one Sir James Dyson shot three Sir James Dyson shot two
   Sir James Dyson with his latest invention.  

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User_Removed 16 17.9k 8 Norway
21 Nov 2009 10:48AM
Fascinating - and very useful. Thank you Sam.
User_Removed 13 736 4
23 Nov 2009 2:14PM
Very interesting and informative, Sam. Thank you!
Pete Plus
19 18.8k 97 England
26 Nov 2009 2:07PM
I totally agree with the above two comments - a really enjoyable insight into the work of a professional press photographer. Not only insightful but useful tips to get better shots with minimal time. Great photos too, thanks Sam.
EddieAC Plus
15 2.9k 2 United Kingdom
30 Nov 2009 1:21AM
Some good info there Sam, thanks.

Like the bit about setting the exposure on camera as if shooting without flash and then using the flash.
I had tried this with my D70 at iso800 and got some good results.
I also found it helps prevent some shadows caused by the on-camera flash.
kitsch 14 439 4 United Kingdom
2 Dec 2009 9:40PM
what an interesting and informative article!
thanks for that Sam
14 Dec 2009 2:52AM
I agree that this is a very well-written article, but what about for people like me who can't afford $20k worth of photo gear? It's just not practical when you make 12 dollars an hour. Any advice for us poor people?

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