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Five Questions Every Photographer Should Answer Before Clicking the Shutter

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Joe Lavine and Brad Bartholomew, authors of Light Right: Learn How to Create Images, Set Up a Studio, and Launch Your Photography Career, discuss the importance of thoroughly understanding your subjects and what you are trying to say about them before actually taking the photograph.  Brad and Joe each take a shot at answering five questions every photographer should be thinking about before shooting begins.

Why Am I Taking This Photo?

Brad: This is not as silly a question as it may seem on the surface. The motivation, or reason for taking the image, will guide a host of decisions you make as you create your photographs. For instance, a photo of a subject, done for your own portfolio, might look totally different from a photo of the same subject executed for a paying client. If it is for your personal portfolio, you will have carte blanche in all the decisions. Images done for clients have usually gone through multiple layers of approval. By the time you are on set, many options will have been decided and/or eliminated.

Maybe you are simply trying to test a new lighting style. You might not be as interested in a perfect final image as you are in the process of trying something new. Placing your subject on a simple background with no other props might be fine in this case, whereas the image may need to be far more complicated if it must meet a client’s needs or an instructor’s requirements.

The two images below illustrate this idea. The first image is one done just for me. I found the shoes at the mall and liked the sort of tropical feel they had. I then created a set to accentuate that feeling. I added the frog just to be the cherry on top. The second image was done for a client that wanted to show a diverse shopping experience. You can’t get much more diverse than mens’ shoes and sushi. The white background was selected to keep it simple and direct.

Joe, do you have a preference between shooting for yourself or for clients? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Joe: I am sure that many people would say that they prefer to shoot for themselves, but it’s not that easy of a question.  You see, I enjoy making a living as a photographer, and to do so means I must have clients.  Without clients there is no check.  Working with clients is not only about the money; it’s also about the collaboration, which I really enjoy.  There is something great about working as a team.

I enjoy giving myself self-assignments.  These projects are designed to push my skills and creativity, and that has been really important throughout my career.  My goal has always been to have my personal work and my commercial/client work almost indistinguishable.  It’s great when you are asked to simply do your style.

What Is Unique about My Subject?

Joe: Photography is more than framing a subject in the viewfinder and pushing a button.  If every subject were the same, then we could use one simple lighting technique and apply it to everything.  You need to understand as many details about your subject as possible and explore what makes your subject unique. 

We’ve all heard the phrase that no two people are the same, and that’s true for all subjects.  Here are three simple questions to ask yourself on this journey: 

  1. How does it compare to similar subjects? 
  2. What makes it different from the competition or similar subjects? 
  3. Is there anything specific that needs to be featured?   

These discoveries are sometimes easier with people because we are accustomed to looking at a person and making observations based on gender, age, nationality, height, weight, and many other attributes.  Beyond the visual observations, it’s helpful to have a conversation. 
I am not sure whether it is positive or negative, but products and objects can’t tell you how they are unique.  That requires the use of your senses.  Sight is obvious, but how does it feel to the touch, does it make a sound, what about an aroma? 

As a food photographer, my sense of smell tells me a lot about a subject.  A technique we use in food photography is to build a stand-in subject that we use for composition and lighting, but it also gives me a chance to catch the aroma.  Bacon was the only thing I could smell when my food stylist was prepping the stand-in for the image below, and I knew before even seeing it that we had to highlight the bacon.  It’s what made this hamburger unique. 

Brad, your specialty is rather different from mine, what is your process for determining the uniqueness of a subject?

Brad: The position of the bacon and the lighting on it really make it pop. I’ll answer your question, but I’m hungry now, and I need to go eat lunch.

When I’m working with clients, they’ll usually point out what’s important and what needs to be featured. I agree with you that the collaborative nature of what we do is part of what makes it fun. If I’m shooting for myself, I’ll take time to just sort of live with the object. I’ll look it over and decide what its most important features are. Sometimes it’s the color. Other times it might be the shape or texture or what it’s used for.

When I photograph people, I’ll spend some time talking with them to put them at ease. I don’t shoot consumer portraiture, so the people are often props for other objects or ideas. Casting the right person to play the part is about 80% of the job. If I can find a person with the right “look”, the rest of the shoot is pretty easy.

What Am I Trying to Say about My Subject?

Brad: This often ties directly to the previous question. What I’m trying to say often revolves around what‘s unique about the subject. If I were photographing an old rough leather jacket, I would want to light it to show the wear and texture.

Relating it back to photographing people we can examine the image below. This image was taken on location in a spa at a high-end hotel. In this case, the spa is the actual subject of the shot. The model serves as a metaphor for the beauty and tranquility of a spa experience.

Before taking the actual photo we held a casting, and we had about 25 models come to the studio to take casting shots. When this model walked in and posed, I knew right away that she was perfect for what we needed. She was beautiful, looked somewhat affluent, and she was able to look completely at peace and serene.

The other props were all things we found within the hotel, and they added to the overall feeling we were trying to convey. The candles add some elegance and tranquility, and the couch was perfect for portraying the timeless elegance of the hotel. I can’t remember, but I am pretty sure that we brought in the red velvet curtain to accentuate the sense of elegance. We wanted the lighting to be soft and subtle to give it the peaceful look we desired. We used one large softbox and a large fill card, and then we dragged the shutter to burn in the lights on the walls and the candles.

Joe, can you pick a particular image of yours and discuss the way propping and lighting helped in illustrating what you were trying to say about the subject?

Joe: I know this may come as a surprise, but I have been accused of being too literal sometimes; however, this image has a name that I was able to take literally.  What else could I use for a product called “Smirnoff Ice”?   It worked great to use ice as the background, but that was only part of the story.  The bottle itself has a frosted cold look, and that’s what I wanted to convey for the entire scene.  The background is ice, there’s a slight cool blue tint to the lighting, and the addition of a soft filter brings the story together. 

How Do I Use Lighting to Help Me Accomplish the Aforementioned Things?

Joe: One of the greatest things about studio lighting is the photographer gets to control everything about the lighting in a scene.  There is hard, soft, bright, dark, flat, and high-contrast; the options and combinations are almost unlimited. 

The quality of lighting, such as high-key (bright) or low-key (dark) is an excellent way to convey the mood or emotion of an image.  Bright images have an uplifting light happy feel, while darker low-key images convey a somber or mysterious mood.  It’s interesting how bad things rarely happen to people on bright sunny days in horror movies, but the dark of night is entirely another story. 

Light can also define the subject.  Consider how the hero or lead actor on a stage has a spot light on them while the supporting cast is slightly dimmer.  This same principle holds true in photography.  Having one object in a scene lit differently than the rest will draw attention to it.  This tells the viewer where to look; and more importantly, it tells the viewer where the photographer wants them to look.  Creating this path with lighting allows the photographer to tell a story or narrative. 

I had a lot of fun conceptualizing and lighting the sprouts image below.  The image was created for a healthy living magazine, and my main goal was to produce an image that gave a bright uplifting and healthy feeling; plus, conveying that anyone can do this at home.   The lighting is bright, inviting, and feels as though it is sitting by their window. 

Brad, my lighting tends to convey light and healthy. Do you have any images that express a darker, more somber mood? 

Brad: Yeah, given a choice, I usually like to go more toward the dark side. I like the drama that those types of shots can convey. This image was something I did for myself. It never made it into my portfolio, but I still like the textures and the drama of it. I found both the fish and the background at a local Asian grocery store. Even though the fish was sold as food, it was never my intention to create a food shot (I’m sure you are relieved to know that, Joe).

To me, it feels more like a fossil. I love the texture of the leaves in the background and all the lines leading to the fish. I lit it with a tungsten light, placed low, to bring out as much texture as possible. There was no fill used because the dark shadows are needed for contrast and drama.

What Determines a Successful Result?

Brad: How will you know if your images are successful? If you are in school, you are getting regular critiques, and your instructors and fellow classmates probably make it pretty clear if your images are working.

Once you’re working for clients, they’ll also let you know what’s successful and what’s not. The collaborative give-and-take on set is a positive thing that can help to make shots better and better. You just want to make sure that you’re starting in the right place.

On one of my first big commercial jobs, the creative director walked in, looked at my test shots and said, ”No, no, this is all wrong.” He didn’t like the lighting, and the main prop was not what he was looking for. After some initial panic, we decided to have the prop remade, and we came back the next day and got what we were looking for.

I hadn’t done a good job of pre-visualizing what the final image was going to look like. Even though I had done a test shot, I hadn’t anticipated the client’s needs correctly; I didn’t meet their expectations.

When you’re shooting for yourself, you need to make sure that the shot meets your own expectations. I’ve found that I’m almost always more successful when I can see the image in my mind before I get started; I’ve spent the time analyzing the subject and developing a lighting scheme to enhance the subject and what I want to say about it.

The image of the birding scope is a good example of this. We needed a shot that looked like it was taken in a natural wetland. The problem was it was February in Denver, and everything was dead and brown, so we needed to shoot it in the studio. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in these kinds of places, so I knew what I wanted it to look like. I could see it before I even started. We had all the vegetation shipped in from Florida, and the sky is a blue seamless lightly painted with some white spray paint. We lit it with a combination of a softbox for the broad highlights and a tungsten light for the specular highlights.

The final results met my expectations and those of the client, so it was a successful image.

Joe, what kind of criteria do you use when determining if an image is a success?

Joe: Before I answer your question, I have a funny story (funny now, not at the time) about meeting the client’s expectations.  I was hired by a nationally known restaurant chain to produce some images for an upcoming advertising campaign.  Based on the work in my portfolio, I thought they wanted bright, lively, high-key images.  The day of the shoot, I set up the composition and lit the set, which I was feeling rather good about until the client walked over and asked when I would start working on the lighting.  Lesson learned, I had not fully understood what the client wanted from the project.

First and foremost, the result must represent my vision for the shot.  If I’ve done my research, then my vision will match my client’s, which means that they will be pleased if I am.  I go into every project with a preconceived idea of what the outcome should be, which doesn’t mean that I’m not open to change, and when the result meets my expectations then I call the project a success. 

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