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Portrait shoot

A few of the pictures I did for Tynneal to include in her RFT portfolio late last year. Get in touch if you would like to find out about having a shoot and how we can make some unique images, whether for work, fun or to share and keep forever.

shootDanny TuckerComment
Photography teaching

Michelle contacted me about getting some experience doing a formal photo shoot and RFT model Danielle needed some new images for her portfolio, so we had a brief to fill, which is always helpful.

We started out a few days before the shoot reviewing Danielle's current image set and understanding what she thought might be needed needed. She wanted some swimsuit shots and whatever else we thought might complement it. We decided on sport style and planned the two looks. Initially, we began at the Jezzine Barracks redevelopment for the sporty look, but it was in direct sunlight so really not good for the 'lifestyle' look we needed.

As I mentioned to Michelle, if this was a formal shoot for the model rather than mainly a teaching session, I would have definitely scouted all the locations ahead of time so I knew exactly what the light was like at the time of day we were going to be there. Sometimes challenges crop up and you just have to be open to change. With a limited amount of time available, you have to just make the call that it's not going to work and change locations early.

The blue background is the wall of Juliette's and when I saw it as we drove past, I knew the shade of blue would complement the blues in Dani's outfit and accessories.


When the sun is out at this time of day, it's important to keep the model's face in the shade. The background at the beach was super bright and you have to accept that it's going to blow to white and lose all detail, as it did in the images below of her sitting on the sand. Or alternatively, try and compose the shots so that there are trees or other darker objects in the background.


If you have more time, an another option to deal with the huge difference in exposure would be to use off camera flash to light the model, bringing her up to a similar brightness as the background. We did have a reflector, but that wasn't enough to fill in the 3 or so stops difference between the model's face in the shade and the sand in the near mid-day sun.

The reflector was definitely useful however for bouncing some light back into Dani's face in the shots taken in the shade below, and also for adding a catchlight to the eyes.

Hit me up for one-one-one teaching in basic dSLR use, running a photo shoot, portfolio building and post-production using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. 

Shooting into the light

Shooting into the light (also known as contre-jour) is a technique that can get you out of a sticky situation in mid-day sun, as well as being a stylish way to take a portrait. A few people have asked me about how I do it, so here it is.

Why shoot into the light?
Old boxes of film used to include a little sheet of helpful photography tips, and one of those was to always place the sun behind your (the photographer's) shoulder. Of course this makes sure your subject is well lit - but it's not usually the most flattering light. Apart from the few minutes after sunrise and before sunset, having the sun directly on your subject can lead to harsh, contrasty lighting - which isn't usually the best for portraits.

This harsh light can be avoided by moving to the shade - or placing something else between the sun and your subject to diffuse the sunlight, such as a pop-up handheld diffuser. Flash-fill is another option. An alternative is to turn your subject around, so their face is in shadow and you are shooting directly into the sun. Now, the most important feature of your portrait no longer is lit by the bright and contrasty sunlight.

Try placing the sun in different areas of the frame - sometimes it works best outside of the frame altogether, other times it looks better placed in the corner of the frame. Trial and error is the way to go. It can be effective if you get the sun just peeking through from behind your subject. Also try shutting down your aperture a bit (e.g. f8 or f16) - this will give the light source have a star-like quality as it comes into the frame.

Shooting contre-jour does mean that you need to know a few tricks to get the exposure right, because you camera can get confused by this type of lighting.

Camera settings
It's probably unfair to say the camera is confused - the exposure meter within it just keeps on doing what it always does. The important thing to remember is when the camera sets an exposure value (f-stop/shutter speed combination), it tries to make the image an average (18% grey) brightness. It doesn't know which part of the frame is important to you.

If your frame has an evenly lit background of similar brightness to the subject (e.g. when you shoot with the sun over your shoulder) then the camera gets it right off the ball. If you shoot into the sun however, there is a huge difference between the area you want to be the correct exposure (your subject) and the rest of the frame behind, which is vastly brighter. Since the camera doesn't know what's important to you, it averages the exposure out, making your subject way too dark. See the image of Camille below - the sun coming from behind and the bright background has made her face too dark.

Aperture priority, standard metering

Aperture priority, standard metering

Once you know that you are shooting in a situation where this is likely to happen, you can override the camera's automatic exposure settings and make allowances for it. If you shoot on any mode but manual, all this means is setting the exposure compensation on your camera to 1.5-2.0 stops over-exposure (+1.5-2.0). All cameras with manual settings will have an exposure compensation option, and for me, this is the most important function you can learn to use once you get off Auto.

Basically, you are saying to the camera - 'Here's the scene, I know you're going to be confused by the light behind my subject, please add a couple of extra stops of light to allow for this.' Don't forget to change the exposure compensation setting back to 0 afterwards, or all your next photos will be over-exposed!

Aperture priority, +2 stops exposure compensation

Aperture priority, +2 stops exposure compensation

When you first see your image, it might look quite washed out with little contrast, but don't worry that's normal and it will be fixed afterwards when you get home :) If you're still worried, shoot a few more with exposures either side - it's always good to have options! The other thing you can do is to use a reflector to bring some light back into your subject's face. This usually means another person and more equipment and I've found that it's not usually necessary if you're shooting raw files - the information you need is usually there for most situations.

When you come to load the image into your computer, you will find that the histogram in your image editing program looks a bit like this:


Basically, it's pushed over to the right, indicating a bright image. The histogram will have 'spiked' on the far right, meaning that you have pure white areas in the image with no information at all (also called 'blown out highlights') - don't worry, that's just the sun or the brightest areas around your subject.

The other thing to note is the big gap at the left of the histogram. This means no areas in your image are black. You can correct this and bring back some contrast by using your software to shift the left edge of the graph closer to the edge of the histogram frame. How it's done depends on your software. In Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw/Photoshop you drag the 'Blacks' slider to the left. In other programs you can use a 'Levels' adjustment and drag the slider at the bottom left in the same direction. This makes the darkest areas of your image a bit darker and brings back contrast, removing some of that 'washed out' look. But don't overdo it, that look is part of the style of contre-jour! Be careful using 'Exposure' or 'Brightness' settings to do this, or you will lose the light in the subject's face.

If the highlights are too bright, then you can use the 'Recovery' and 'Exposure' sliders to bring back some detail.

An alternative approach - silhouette
In the photograph below, I made a different decision when shooting - I knew that the camera would be tricked by the sun and make the subjects dark. This time however I didn't use exposure compensation because I wanted exactly the result I knew the camera would produce - a silhouette in the frame. I wasn't interested in subject detail, just their outline.

Shoot with your camera set to capture raw files if possible - you need as much information as possible for post-production

Shoot on aperture priority, with your standard exposure metering

  • Set exposure compensation to +1.5 or +2.0
  • Bring back the detail in the blacks in post
Predictable beauty - or in the eye of the beholder?

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"

Is it really? What do we understand by this statement? Presumably that we all possess different standards or interpretations of beauty. And that which one person considers beautiful will not predictably apply to another. On the surface this seems reasonable, but after deeper consideration of the evidence we find that it actually isn't true.

In terms of facial beauty, psychology research has shown us that there is wide agreement across cultures about who is beautiful. Interestingly, none of the studies found exposure to western media to have any influence on perceptions of beauty. It has been found that babies as young as only a few months old gaze preferentially, and for longer, at faces judged by adults as attractive as compared to those who are aren't.

Divine Proportions

Many believe that beauty is strongly related to facial proportions that conform to a shape as described by Divine Proportions or the Golden Ratio of 1.618.  Dr. Stephen Marquardt was one of the researchers who not only studied cross-cultural human beauty but also incorporates the principles of his research of the Golden Ratio into his maxillofacial surgery practice. He has developed a series of mathematical masks which can reliably predict human beauty and be utilised for aesthetic dentistry and surgery.

Coming to the image at the top of the page and discussion about predictable beauty, it came as no surprise to me that when I shared this on the internet it was received favourably. I have many other photos that I personally prefer, which received much less (and in many cases no) attention. Interestingly, one of my most popular photographs in the years I've posted on social media is of two horse riders at a beach in New Zealand (below)

If you are looking for other photographic features that conform to universal standards of beauty to include in your images, these will include:

  • saturated colours rather than dull
  • bright images as opposed to dark and underexposed
  • high contrast not flat
  • broad but directional lighting
  • beauty in nature - sunsets, hillsides, seascapes and long white beaches. We prefer sun rather than it's absence, images that depict warm weather, blue skies and scenes void of pollution or human spoiling of nature. These subjects often have the added benefit of inducing a 'pleasurable memory' from holidays in our lives.

Not to say these are fixed rules and there is no room for individual aesthetic taste - they are broad generalisations - you only need to look at Flickr Explore for proof of these styles however.

Compositional influence

One of the most important skills we must develop as a photographer is the ability to not only view and enjoy the images other people make, but to critically read them and think about why they work (or don't work) from an emotional and compositional point of view. Learning from this we can then apply these principles to improve our own art.

Compositionally, the image at the top of the page has foreground, mid-frame and background points of interest because I chose a wide angle lens. Wide lenses exaggerate distance and reinforce depth in an image. Compare this for example to the other horse riding image above in which composition is flattened by use of a telephoto lens. Not to say that one is right and the other is wrong - it's just an artistic choice you have to actively consider when you choose your focal length and look through the viewfinder.

In photography we utilise the Golden Ratio, although it is more widely known as the 'rule of thirds'. In general an image is considered more compositionally balanced if we place important subjects on a line that divides the image into thirds - along either the horizontal or vertical axes. In my two-horse image above the midpoint of the horses is at approximately the 1/3 from right edge horizontally. I also placed them on the right side of the frame so they have photographic space ahead of the direction they are running. Placing a subject moving or facing the frame edge tends to create an unsettling tension rather than balance. This tension can be used to create interest if done with care - in this photograph for example, the subject's gaze out of the frame makes us wonder what she is looking at, holding our attention for longer than if she were looking directly at the camera or camera right.

I took several other frames at the time of the sunrise image and have included two of them below (and the original to save scrolling).

Original image

Original image

The importance of visual weight

The first shows both Hannah and the horse aligned on their 1/3 lines - so why isn't it as pleasing from a compositional point of view? The relative size of Hannah in the foreground has much more visual weight than the beach walker in the mid-frame, so the image feels centre-heavy. A relatively dominant subject on the left foreground of the frame requires more space to the right to achieve a satisfying compositional balance. Visual weight isn't just about size, but more about what draws the eye. The human form has great visual weight, as do larger objects and those that are colourful and/or brighter.

Hannah and walker on 1/3 lines of frame

Hannah and walker on 1/3 lines of frame

Another frame below shows a different layout. Some may prefer this to the original image and although I think framing the horse more to the right leads to greater compositional balance, I preferred the position of the horses legs captured above. Also, the foreground sticks below the horse are a bit more distracting in the image below. Of course I could use Photoshop to exchange the horse from above and remove the sticks, but that would be cheating...!

The differences are small, but perhaps better appreciated in the larger versions when you click them.

A more balanced composition?

A more balanced composition?