I Like Backgrounds

“You know, you could take all the portraits shot in the district in the last six months and throw them on the floor.” I say as I look at some of my portraits over The Passer’s shoulder. “And I wouldn’t be able to pick mine out.  We all do the same poses.”

“Look at that background.” The Passer says as she points out a swirling pattern of orange and purple behind a little old lady. “All you’d have to do it look at the backgrounds.  No one else does what you do with the backgrounds.”

One of my favorite photography books is called The Master Guide to Lighting for Portrait Photographers-and it pretty much lives up to it’s name.  There are all kinds tricks and tips, but the real meat and bones is all the images of standard Lighting Patterns.  This is great stuff, and useful to even the lowly Assembly Line Portrait Photographer.  He has all kinds of fun advice for backgrounds as well, including a number of things I have tried but had no luck with.  That whole Reverse Cookie thing is just beyond me.

Christopher Grey’s Studio Lighting Techniques for Photography: Tricks of the Trade for Professional Digital Photographers is sort a sequel/continuation of his work in Master Lighting Guide for Portrait Photographers.   He covers a bit of the same ground, but adds a few more way cool examples of what the image should look like and why the lighting patterns matter.  There are a couple of great chapters on standard portrait techniques like High Key and Low Key as well a couple of oldie but goodie techniques I might have to give a shot.  And there are a couple of tips for background lighting that gave me the standard-well, duh-why didn’t I think of that?

One is easy enough that I will give it a try tomorrow.  I have a light modifier for my background light called a snoot, which makes a round hotspot on the background.  One of the things suggested in Studio Lighting is to have a square snoot and project a square shape onto the background.  The sample image has a pretty large square and frames the model perfectly.  I am not using a metal snoot, but one DIYed out of form board.  It should be easy enough modify the shape into a square and see how I like it.

Photography is all about controlling light, and Assembly Line Portrait Photography is all about controlling what The Photographer does with that light.  My first Assembly Line Studio at the Big Box Store was completely idiot proof-the only thing that could go wrong was with the posing, the use of props, and the attitude of the button pusher.  Everything in these little camera rooms are locked down-the lights, the subject spot, the backgrounds.  All designed with the simple idea that anyone can sit the subject in the right spot, point the camera, and make a perfectly exposed image.  The Photographer in these studios can’t change anything.  So The Lab has very little to worry about.

But that was a while ago.  Now I have a portable Portrait Studio with six lights, three backgrounds, a couple of dozen colored gels that change the color of the backgrounds, and a digital camera with nothing locked so I can adjust everything from aperture to shutter speed to film speed.  I can position the lights where I want.  I can position The Subject where I want.  I can underexpose the image or overexpose the image.  I can make a black background absolutely black and I can make a white background virtually disappear into a soft white glow-all while keeping the Subjects perfectly lite as well.

I read books about Studio Lighting and Posing for Portraits and I even watch the occasional DVD.  Most books and DVDs are not created with the lowly Assembly Line Portrait Photographer in mind.  They all feature photographers working in 20 thousand square foot Studios with dozens of lights, sets, and most annoying of all-Assitants.     There is always some eager helper running around adjusting the umbrellas and softboxes, and twisting a reflector to get that just perfect highlight.  I have never had an assistant, even though there have been times that I could have used one.

Over the years I have developed a special fondness for backgrounds.  I have been known to drape just about anything I can find behind a Subject to give the image a little more pop.  I was once greatly impressed with a company called Off The Wall-now out of business-that sold giant props which looked like stone arches and footbridges and the like.  They were fun props, but too big to drag around-and really, how many giant odd shapes does a Studio need?  They were different though and different sells.

The Company is all for anything and everything-that SELLS.  If what your shooting isn’t selling, well, they would rather you just stick with the Basics and leave the fine art stuff to the Real Photographers.  The Passer is often not that impressed with wild backgrounds and shifts in exposure either, though some appreciate anything new.  I used to be a real fan of Filters, but pretty much stopped using them over the past few years.  Maybe I could start using a Softening Filter on the little old ladies.

November is pretty close to the end of the Busy Season for the Assembly Line Portrait Photography.  There are only a couple of weeks of work left this year.  As always, there are Shoot in January, but not enough for all the Photographers to work.  So the Favored Few will get the work, and the rest of us will split our time between collecting Unemployment and looking on Craigslist for a new job.

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