Of Senior Portraits and Modeling, Part 3

I’m a naturally rather shy person. I mean, if I know you, I can speak with confidence and at length, but when meeting strangers I’m far more quiet and content to stand back and observe. This has obvious drawbacks when it comes to meeting strangers and shortly thereafter telling them to do all kinds of weird and unusual things. Fortunately, when meeting someone professionally, even in a weird profession like photography, there is a certain assumption about the level of intimacy and behavior that is not normally tolerated in other circumstances. I know why we are here, you know why we are here, so lets do the thing that we came here to do, sorta thing.

I have to dismiss my natural discomfort. I am the professional, I should be calm, cool, confident. When I tell someone to thrust out their chin, it should not be done all meek and mild, but with quiet confidence. That doesn’t mean that I am barking commands at them, just that I am outwardly certain of myself.

Remember always, that your customer is far more frightened of you then you are of them.

Who’s afraid of the big bad human?

Perhaps characterizing photographers as lurking predators isn’t such a great idea. Whatever. Look at that guy! He’s so cute! Also, they’re not exactly afraid of you. They are in an unusual situation which focuses almost entirely on their physical appearance. This is more than a little unnerving, and one of the reasons that I’m glad to be behind the camera.

In the senior portrait session I have been gabbling on about endlessly, Haley was far more nervous than Dani. She was certainly determined to do what needed to be done, but she was initially quite … reticent about the whole thing. In an effort to get her a little more comfortable I showed her two images. The first was of Tony, leaned up against a brick wall looking all sexy, or at least trying to.

Like me, Tony prefers to be behind the camera. I’ll not show such a silly image without his permission.

The second was the first ‘good’ shot of her that I had taken. It’s one thing to see some one else be silly. It helps, certainly, but isn’t, ultimately, about the person suffering from nerves. However, once I showed her that ‘good’ image, she was much more comfortable with the whole situation. She could see that there was no pressure, thanks to sexy Tony, and that we were able to capture images of her that she would enjoy.

On the other side of the camera was me. I also felt a certain amount of discomfort with the situation. Like I said in the first post in this series, this was an early shoot. I wasn’t entirely sure how to handle myself. Talking with Haley and Dani not only helped them, but it helped me. I was able to act confidently, because I had worked to make both myself and them more comfortable.

For example, I wanted at one point a very natural smile from Haley. So I said, “think of something dirty and giggle about it.”

Wow, that was wildly, or at least mildly, inappropriate. But at that point I felt a certain comfort with the two girls, and I believe that they felt rather comfortable with Tony and I. I got the giggle, and the smile.

Finally I want to talk about two mistakes that we made. Well, the first one was one that we both made, and the second is one that I made. The first is simply this: If your models are going to be wearing thin white shirts, advise them to layer up. I only discovered this later, when editing the images. I now make that a part of my pre-session spiel. No, I won’t be showing example images, or even telling you which young woman or sexy Tony it was. Partly because it’s indecorous to look at a young woman’s underwear, which is about you, but mostly because I don’t think that she would like for me to broadcast those images, which is about her.

On the day, the shirt was quite opaque, but when working within Lightroom there are certain adjustments to the RAW file which can allow you to see through the clothes. In case you are reading this, I almost immediately discarded all work on those images. I say almost, because I did try and find a way to work around the issue, but I couldn’t do so quickly enough, and became deeply uncomfortable. For everyone else, advise your model to layer up when wearing thin white shirts. It makes everyone more comfortable.

The second mistake was entirely on me. I had one of the girls sitting in a wicker chair. During the shoot I had gotten in the practice of moving from a high to a low camera position, or vice-versa. Mostly this was because I had little experience, and wanted as much coverage as I could get. In general I would get from one extreme to the other, request a change to the pose, and work my way back to the other extreme. This saved me effort, and working in such a manner on a hot day led to disquieting levels of perspiration, so any effort saved is a blessing.

I started to do the same when she was sitting in the chair. With a dress on. At one of the low camera angles I began requesting a change in the pose. While I was sitting low down and holding a camera. There were obvious problems to this which I realized as soon as I started speaking. I stuttered my way through an explanation, mind filling with bright red embarrassment and fear.

Luckily her friend understood my incoherent ramblings, and adequately explained things, while I modestly turned my head to the side. This situation should never have happened. I could have simply stood up and the requested the change. If I had thought of it, I would have done exactly that. But I didn’t. I made a fool of myself, which is about me, and almost made the situation deeply uncomfortable, which is about her.  Luckily both young woman were mature and far more understanding of the situation than I was. As I said, they bought us a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, so I don’t think that that particular mistake made any lasting impression. But it never should have happened in the first place.

I learned a lot on this photo shoot. I learned about lighting, and posing, and how to make the customer comfortable, and a really good way to make them uncomfortable. I learned that while I need to be comfortable myself, it is far more important for them to be comfortable. They need to be happy, not just with the end product, but during the creation of that product. Indeed, being comfortable during the shoot helps immensely with creating a good final product that the customer will be happy with.

Most importantly, for you, as a photographer, you need to be completely aware of the situation, and think about what you want to do. This isn’t just about capturing the perfect image, but about working with other people. Think before you act, and save yourself.

I have tried to articulate what I learned, and I hope that you understood what I was trying to say.



Of Senior Portraits and Modeling, Part 2


In our last post, I talked about using bounce light to make the image pop out of the background. While I think that this image of Haley is better in that regard then the one of Dani from the last post, it does still illustrate a number of mistakes. First, having a dark background would help out immensely. Having that super bright sky and the sun behind her makes it very difficult to create that pop effect I was looking for.

That much is obvious. However, I think that I could have achieved a better effect by moving the reflector. As you can see, the bounce light is coming from image right. This creates the hint of a shadow on the left. We also have a darker element on the left with those trees in the background. Had I moved the reflector so that the bounce light came from the left, I believe that the pop effect would have been magnified.

Of course, this shoot wasn’t about me and my silly experiments. It was about getting good senior portraits. In this regard, having the dark and light elements aligned works well. It provides a certain flow to the image. However, if I had changed the direction of the light, it could have set up a striking contrast that might have aided the striking light idea I was attempting. Of course, it might have also looked really weird. Oh well.

One last thing about this specific image. In this series of images I wanted Haley to project power and might. You know, like some CEO strutting her stuff for a magazine interview or something. Some of the other images have poses which do this better, but this is about the light, not posing. I shot from pretty far down, with the lens below the navel and pointing up. One of the dangers with this is the under chin shadow. As you can see, there ain’t no shadow there. We of course had some incidental bounce light from the light wood of the bridge, but we also positioned the reflector so that it bounced the light up at the subject, rather than straight on.

In a studio this might be achieved by having a fill light aimed at the center of the body, while the key light is slightly above. With just the key light, there would be shadows all over  the place. However, with a fill light feathering light under the chin, that shadow gets removed. In this case, our key light, i.e. the Sun, was above and behind. Our bounce light had to act as both fill and key. Again, incidental light from our surroundings helped, but getting the reflector positioned well was key (ha!) to getting the light we wanted while eliminating any shadows that we didn’t want. In future having multiple reflectors could mitigate some of those lighting headaches.

And now onto posing. Sort of. I’m going to show you two different images with similar poses, but radically different approaches to lighting.


In this first one wee see a thoughtful, almost pensive. Since we had time, and the girls were happy to try out anything, I decided to experiment with more than the standard, ‘look at the camera and smile’ image. However, this is again about the light. The bounce is now coming from image left, casting shadows on the right, matching the dark element of the iron bridge supports. This did create some hot spots on the face, and in retrospect I should have cropped out that excessive amount of head room. Oh, and the top support is piercing her head. Oops.


In this second image we have a similar pose, but the lighting was completely different. Having turned 90 degrees, Haley is now facing almost directly towards the sun. Rather than bouncing light at her, we used a diffuser to diminish the light. This certainly evened out the light and eliminated hot spots, but it also left the subject darker than the background. It also left a shadow on the bridge support. Having a second reflector bouncing a small amount of light up at Haley would have helped her face stand out more from the background. There is also a hint of under chin shadow, but luckily the incidental light and the pose hides it pretty well.

Personally, I like the first of these two images better, despite the max headroom issue and the fly away hair. The bounce light and mostly dark background helped create that striking light effect, and the pose feels more natural. The second, while nice, has issues. First, her head is tilted down too much. Second, and cropped out, is her hands. They were clasped gently in front of her stomach, and ultimately looked a little awkward. But her hair looks fantastic. In the first, the super bright light and lack of a brush (my fault, by the way. I had a brush, I just didn’t think to use it) makes her hair look flat. In the second, her hair is almost glowing.

I was going to continue on with a few more images, but this post is getting quite long, and so I will save that for part 3. For now though, I think that the most important lesson is to remember everything. Photography isn’t just about camera settings,  subject large enough already. It’s about camera position, and lighting, and framing, and cropping, and posing, and hair brushes. You have to pay attention to every thing. What is in the background, and how will it effect the shot? What pose will best carry across the emotional intent of the image? Where do you place the camera? What will the direction of your light do? Are there bridge beams crashing haphazardly through the subjects head? Did you remember the hair brush?

Photography requires detailed examination of minutia, situational awareness, and experience. On the day of the shoot, I was so excited by the prospect of a paying gig, and you know, practicing my art or whatever, that I lost sight of the details and ended up making mistakes. With practice though, all those little things that you must be aware of while shooting go from a check list in your head to instinctive actions. So, go out and shoot. Shoot often, shoot always. But most importantly, review your images and critically analyze them. Look for mistakes, and look for successes. Remember what you did right, and what you did wrong. Build that checklist, and practice it. Talent only goes so far. You must work hard, physically and mentally, if you are to ever be anything more than what you are now.

Of Senior Portraits and Modeling, part 1

One of our earliest jobs was to take senior portraits for a family member and her friend. It was a good time, and a great learning experience, especially since they wanted more than just their senior portraits done. They also bought a bottle of Jack Daniels for us after they received their images, so they were quite happy. We were too.

Senior portraits are a bit tricky. Rather, they usually have specific requirements that must be adhered too and a firm deadline. I’m sure that most of you out there already know this, but just in case you don’t: Always get those requirements and the deadline info! You might take a lovely portrait, and either edit it and turn it in too late, or you will have failed to meet one of the requirements. You only get one shot at this, so you better get it right!

Okay, it’s not quite as bad as wedding photography, but it’s a close second. And angry parents are … scary. So long as you are aware of the guidelines and get them the images at least a day before the deadline (or submit the photo to school yourself) you will be fine.

Onto the images! In this first image, we see Dani sitting besides a pleasant babbling brook:

Burble burble burble

It’s certainly not award winning, but it gets the job done. Fun fact: The ground was littered, there was nasty growths and things along the bank, it smelled like a swamp, and a few minutes after this image was taken we discovered an abundance of spiders. We left the area with haste after that.

Side note: The image you see is about a stop brighter than what I see in Photoshop or in any of my image viewer programs. I’m just gonna chalk this one up to WordPress weirdness until I learn otherwise.

That’s a nice image. I would also like to show you a few more from the same shoot to illustrate a few mistakes that I made.

Dani 8x10

I really love the back light coming through her hair in this shot. I also like the shallow depth of field. Beyond the bokeh (and for some forum posters, there is nothing beyond bokeh:) I like the drop off. Her face is nice and sharp, but by the time you get to her back shoulder it’s already starting to blur. It really brings focus onto the area we’re most interested in.

What I don’t like is that I could have been a bit better with my skin smoothing in photoshop. That is definitely a skill I need to improve upon. Tony is far better at PS wizardry than I am. Perhaps I should encourage (read:cattle prod) Tony into writing a post about an image in which he had to remove a hand from the shot. To date, that has been the most impressive thing that he’s done in PS.

I am also disappointed that I failed to use a reflector to direct some sunlight onto her face. I had to use a layer mask and brighten that area up a significant amount to get it acceptable. Again, the extra stop in brightness doesn’t show this clearly, but you can still obviously see that the background is much brighter than her face. Lesson learned.

Speaking of bounce light, one of the objectives I had while working this shoot was to use bounce light to isolate the subject in a striking way. In the next post I will have an image which exemplifies this, but for now, there is this:


While she is brighter than her immediate surroundings, the railings to either side, she is not brighter than the sky nor significantly brighter than the wood of the bridge. At this point we were using one double sided reflector, gold on one side, silver on the other. Throughout the shoot we used the gold side, because it gave a warm, natural light that fitted well with the sunlight. We had no studio lights, we were just working with the sun. In retrospect, I would have used two or even three reflectors in an attempt to brighten her up even more. In the next post you will see more of what I was going for in regards to a ‘striking light’ idea. But for now realize that I was trying to use light to separate the subject from the background more than simply bokeh would have done.

I did much better with in achieving this goal with a flower:


It’s not the greatest image, but it does show exactly what I was trying to go for: By over exposing the subject in-situ, I had to underexpose the background. This ‘popped’ the subject out of the background. In this example, I over did it by quite a large margin. However, this image clearly shows what I was trying to achieve: The subject is strikingly distinguished from the background. Fun fact: I achieved this with the cover from a tin cookie box and natural light.

Right, so that’s it for this post. We learned that it is vitally important to know exactly what you’re doing when it comes to senior portraits. We have learned that using reflectors helps immensely when lighting your subject, and that if you want to get creative with your lighting, you may need more than your standard gear. In the next post we will look at Hailey, shot on the same day in mostly the same way, some of the dangers regarding white clothing, but most especially, how the temperament of the model can affect you, the photographer.


One Shot Challenge #1

Hello again!


Anthony and I like to challenge ourselves. When business is slow, or we feel that we are becoming to comfortable in our niche, we like to step outside of our comfort zones and try something new. This day we went and challenged ourselves to go to a location, press the shutter button once, and accept whatever image we made.

This challenge is fun, because it forces you to know your camera and lens very well if you are to have any hope of successfully completing it. I got the idea after watching Sean Tucker’s video, “A (bit more than a) landscape tutorial: Snowdonia” If you aren’t already, I would highly recommend watching his videos. Yes, he has technical tips and tricks, but more importantly, he teaches you how to think like a photographer.

Anyway, we went out to Daniel’s Park in Sedalia, Colorado. It’s a lovely place for a picnic, a hike, for some photography; whether landscape or wedding or family portraiture it’s perfect. Here’s my shot:


I would recommend all you burgeoning photographers to try this challenge. It’s fun, and forces you to learn. What more do you need? I mean, other than visiting our site, penumbra-photography.com, of course!



We are Penumbra Photography, and welcome to our blog. My name is Daniel, and the other guy is Anthony. You might see him around from time to time, but for now at least this photo blog will be run mostly by me.

The Great And Powerful Daniel!

Mwa-ha-ha, the POWER!

The power is miniscule, but I can call Anthony silly names and say that he smells with reckless abandon*. Not that I would call him anything, but I COULD!

The Miniscule And Smelly Anthony!

You can hop on over to our website at penumbra-photography.com, which has all our contact info if you want to hire us for your family portraits or head shots. We are located in the south Denver-Parker, Colorado area, so if you live near-by and need portraits done, we’re the guys to call.

Thanks for checking us out, and we hope to see you soon!


*I considered re-writing that last bit, but I enjoy the ambiguity