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This post is a companion to my guest blog post on Scott Kelby’s Blog where I discuss more about how to use to his Steve Jobs Portrait Project. I also wrote about this once before on Photofocus. Right now, Let’s talk about the technical aspects of making this portrait.

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It’s a pretty simple portrait to make. For the light, I like to use a 22″ beauty dish with a diffusion sock (sometimes even a grid) on camera left just in front of my subject shining downward about 45 degrees, and I adjust the height to be sure the light twinkles in the eyes. The light needs to be far enough to the side so that there is definitely a shadow on the side of the nose. I like the beauty dish because it’s soft, but directional and not too soft. I also like it because I got one from Amazon.com made for speedlights, and any of the accessories made for speedlights that have a circular mount also fit perfectly on my Alien Bees strobes. So, I got a beauty dish I can use both on studio strobes and on speedlights and get the same look. I don’t like the beauty dish because it’s big and hard to transport. For travel, I’ve been using the Westcott 26″ Rapid Box, and I like that quite well.

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With the main light on camera left, I like a white reflector on the right side to ease the shadows a bit. Many times, the best reflector is simply a wall on the right side, but any white reflector is good. I’ve been using this butterfly style reflector, and I really like it. Bring the reflector closer to the person’s face to brighten that side, or farther to darken it.

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For the background, it’s easiest to light it enough that it goes to white, but in a pinch I’ve used the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom or layer masks in Photoshop to brighten the background to white. I use a white background, or the translucent panel from a 5-in-1 reflector, or a lightly colored wall as the background. Any background you shine enough light on will appear white in your photograph, and it’s especially easy to do in black and white. Whenever possible, I shine a speedlight or two on the background; it’s most important to light the area directly behind your subject’s head so that you can use the Adjustment Brush without having to work around the hair (Hint: turn on Auto Mask in the brush settings).

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Camera Setup

There are just three camera settings that matter:

Telephoto Lens

There are two reasons you’ve got to use a long lens. Firstly, it’s flattering to use a long lens for a closeup portrait; if you use a 50mm lens closeup you’ll distort the face too much—foreheads the size of Texas and noses like Bullwinkle the moose will be the result. I normally use a 105mm lens for these portraits, and I recommend something at least that long, no matter what crop factor your camera has. Secondly, a longer lens lets you stand back from your subject, and that’s more comfortable for everyone. If I used a 50mm lens on my full frame camera and framed the pictures as you’ve seen them, I’d be standing just a couple of feet in front of my subject, and that’s uncomfortable for some people.

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Black Exposure

Since you’re using strobes to light your subject, you can make these portraits just about anywhere. Just make sure your exposure without the flash is pretty close to black so that the ambient light doesn’t affect the image—there’s nothing worse than overhead lights shining off scalps and maybe even casting funny shadows under the eyes. I shoot at the max flash sync speed for my camera (1/200s), f/8, and I adjust the ISO anywhere from 100 to 800. f/8 is necessary because we need a little depth on the head or else the shallow depth of field may become an object of the image, distracting from the subject and reducing the impact. Why would I use a high ISO like 800? Simply because if I’m making four hundred portraits at a convention, then ISO 800 lets my speedlight batteries last eight times longer than shooting at ISO 100. You need less brightness from the flash, so the batteries last longer.

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Monochrome

You gotta use the monochrome settings in your camera. After you snap the shutter and say, “Oh, that was perfect!” and turn the camera to show your subject, it’s gotta be in black and white to really knock their socks off. However, don’t just set it to monochrome and call it good. I highly recommend going into the monochrome menu and turning on the filter effects and using a Yellow or Orange filter. This adds contrast and helps people’s skin to look better. If you shoot RAW, then the image will appear in color on your computer. Keeping the RAW and the black and white JPEG is the best reason to set your camera’s quality settings to RAW+JPG. I’ve created a preset I use for my RAW images that mimics a filter in the range of Yellow to Red. Click here to get the preset hosted by our friends at Mosaic Archive (Hint: I often disable the Tone Curve adjustments I’ve set with the preset).

See my complete setup in this video I made for Scott Kelby’s blog.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

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The Best Industry in the Universe

I bought a camera five years ago, and that’s when I began reading Scott Kelby’s blog and books, attending workshops, conferences, local photo club meetings, reading other blogs, like Photofocus.com, and listening to podcasts like TWIP. I immersed myself in the industry as much as making pictures, and I found a community of photographers interested in helping me improve. Three and a half years ago I quit my job and photographs have been supporting my family ever since. I’ve been around the world and taught in many cities, and I’ve always found good people interested in helping each other. All my best friends are photographers, and about 1/3 of my clients are, too.

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I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the people in this industry (and if you’re reading this, you’re in this industry). I’ve put a lot of effort into helping other photographers, and it’s never been the wrong choice. If you think that helping another’s business grow is bad for your business, you’re wrong. The best thing for your business and your art is to help others grow. Everybody’s market is saturated and everybody’s a photographer. I strongly encourage you get to know your fellow photogs. I promise, you won’t lose business to those people, and you just might pick up some referrals. This industry is great because people like you help people like me, and I do the same for someone else. The Photofocus team embodies this ideal.  I hope to meet at a seminar somewhere in the world, or, better yet, Photoshop World. You’ll see that all the instructors and attendees are there to help you grow. Thank you, Scott Bourne, for building this community, and thank you, Rich Harrington and Melissa Niu, for letting me contribute a small part. When I started making pictures, I never imagined that I’d also be joining the best family on the planet.

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Great article with a great attitude to accompany the tech tips. Good luck and blessings for your entire life.

    Reply
  2. Great post! I’m just getting into the photography world and appreciate the insight. Even as a beginner I felt the content was easily digested without skimping on the details. Definitely a portrait I’ll try!

    Reply
  3. Levi,
    I met you at Photoshop World Las Vegas 2014. I love your engaging style and the way you set me up for the shot. No photographer has managed me as well as you did. I love the project and I love the shot you did of me as well (LeviSimPSW-179-L.jpg). I am an IT manager and have been considering ways to shoot my staff portraits (105 people) and I think it would be a hoot to shoot them all this way! This article and the video are so inspiring to me as a photographer. Simple and elegant and funny as all get out! Cheers brother!

    Reply

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About Levi Sim

Photography is my life, and I'd like my photography to be part of your life, too. Whether I make pictures with you or help you learn to make your vision pop out of the camera, I'm happy to help.

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Inspiration, Photography, Portrait, Technique & Tutorials

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