THE BEST PLACE TO CREATE beautiful portraits is without a doubt in the studio.

Outside the studio, the photographer can often blame the shortcomings of a photograph on circumstances beyond their control. The background was busy, they could say, or the light was poor quality.

In the studio, none of this is a valid excuse, because the photographer has control over everything.

The position of each and every light is subject to his or her will and the direction of every shadow can be manipulated to enhance the picture.

Control in the studio is not limited to lighting either. The photographer will usually also choose the color and type of backdrop, using it to enhance the model’s features or to convey a specific message. You can, for instance use a blue backdrop to create a calming effect, or use orange to convey as sense of quirkiness.

But with all of this control comes a lot of responsibility. Studio photographers often spend hours before a shoot planning exactly what they want to achieve and how they aim to achieve it.

It is not uncommon to make multiple sketches of both the image you want and the lighting and prop layout you need to use to achieve it. (See attached sketch.)

The most important factor in studio photography, however, is knowing what you want to achieve. Without a clear concept of the type of image you want to create, no amount of planning will get you anywhere (not least because you don’t know where you are going!)

Your concept will often be dictated by someone else, or will be implicitly agreed in the commissioning of the image.

For instance, a CEO who wants a portrait done for the company newsletter will want a formal image, perhaps conveying the idea of power and success. The image will be as straight-forward and uncluttered as possible.

Then again, if you are approached for a family portrait, you will be expected to create a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, showing a loving relationship.

Setting the model at ease

While most things in the studio are under your complete control, the one thing that is not, is the person you photograph.

While professional models may be at ease with the alien environment of the studio, with all it’s cables and lights and reflectors and snoots, the vast majority of people are not. For many, the large gaping hole is a terrifying site and they will stiffen involuntarily as soon as it is pointed at them. Others will instinctively reach for their tried and trusted ‘camera smile’ which they generally only use when caught in the headlights at a birthday or wedding.

As the photographer, it is your job to break through these exteriors to expose and celebrate the person underneath.

In this quest, your first tool will be your own comfort in the surroundings. No studio shoot can ever be successful unless the photographer is at ease in his or her surroundings. Make sure you know your equipment inside out and if it is a rented studio, make visit the location before the shoot. At the very least arrive well before your model and play with the lights and camera to make sure that everything is in perfect working order.

Once the model arrives, you should focus your attention on them, not on your equipment, excessive fiddling with lights and reflectors only serve to remind the sitter of their presence.

Engage your sitter in conversation. Get them talking about anything they are interested in. As they sit nattering away, they will soon forget where they are and you will be able to fire away to your heart’s content.

Always be on the lookout for telltale signs of tension, though, as it can creep back at any stage. The hands are often your most obvious clue and if you have a model that is really hard to relax, you may have to resort to handing them a suitable prop to play with.

Another trick I sometimes use is to ask the model to close their eyes and think of their favourite holiday. I then wait for 5 seconds and tell them to look at me. Sounds corny, I know, but it works.

On those rare occasions that none of this does the trick and even my personal charm has failed, I have a final secret trick up my sleeve (or in my back pocket, to be more exact). Models who can’t relax get a little treat from the hip flask I bring to shoots. This seldom fails, but please don’t go telling them I do that in advance, else they’ll all play hard to get!

Studios need not be the preserve of professional photographers with huge budgets.

Indeed, at its simplest, the studio is nothing more than a place where the photographer has control over the quality of the light falling on to the model. Described as such, a studio can be anywhere and you can create studio conditions in a wide variety of different places.

A photographer can, for instance, create a studio in his own home, or in the home of the person being photographed. This is a huge departure from traditional thinking, and one that opens a brand new world of possibility to aspiring studio portrait photographers Aarhus.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled against studio portraiture, as we have seen, is that the environment can often be very intimidating for inexperienced models. If, however you can take the studio to the model, rather than the model to the studio, you have a much better chance of creating a relaxed atmosphere, and one in which your model will be able to shine.

What you’ll find in a studio

LIGHT IS AT THE heart of any studio, and the lights you use will largely determine how much freedom you will have to be creative with portraits, but you can go a surprisingly long way with very little money.

Though it is undoubtedly possible to shoot very effective portraits with only one light, a basic set of lights will contain at least three units. This provides much greater flexibility, and by adding a range of reflectors you can create an almost infinite number of lighting combinations, so that the arrangements can be as varied as the faces you will photograph.

Studio light units are available in a range on different strengths, and can vary in the exact composition of the materials used to create the generate the light. For instance, some light units utilize tungsten bulbs and therefore generate light of a slightly yellow quality while other such as may be balance to match the color of daylight. For more on information on color balance, click here.

In the old days of film photography, using anything but daylight balanced flash was a real pain, and photographers happily splashed out the dough for expensive units. But today, with digital photography, which allows us to shoot under lights of a wide variety of color temperatures, there is a good case for using tungsten or lights and then correcting any color casts on the computer. Provided you shoot in RAW, rather than jpeg, there should be no disadvantages in quality. (Keep an eye on the site for a future discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of specific types of light sources.)

Apart from the lighting units, you will also, depending on you budget, want to invest in a range of accessories and paraphernalia. These will include soft-boxes and umbrellas that allow you to soften the shadows cast by the lights, reflectors of varying colors that allow you to bound light back into shadow areas and snoots that focus the light beam, so that you can highlight a particular feature.

Your arsenal will be expanded by backdrops of different styles and hues and you will want desk fans around, both for cooling the model (many studio lights generate a lot of heat) and for creating that sought-after wind-blown effect, often used on young, pretty models.

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A sturdy stepping ladder is another useful tool, as it opens the skies of possibility to new camera angles. Some photographers also opt to have a computer present at the shoot. This allows them to get instant feedback from the shoot and lets them see the images in high resolution, making it easy to spot problems and opportunities.

I want every element of the picture to be there for a reason. I often ask models to remove all of their jewellery and all of their makeup. Then, little by little, I add bits and pieces as they are needed.

A watch on an arm, for instance, is never included, unless it has a reason to be there. If I photograph a businessman, I will put it on, to show that he is in control and always on time. But boys around the age of 10 or 12 often wear watches too, but I would usually not include this, as it spoils the image of an innocent childhood.

Groups and family portraits

Groups are such a tricky subject that it merits specific attention.

Whereas the job of the photographer will be to set one person at ease in an individual portrait, the group shot requires you to focus the attention of all the people on you.

The potential for blinking at the moment the shutter is released is multiplied and there are also more egos to stroke and idiosyncrasies to take into account.

You will also have to make sure that the clothes and color schemes match. As a general rule, I either prescribe what I expect everyone to wear at the shoot, or I ask them to keep the tones and patterns muted. There is nothing worse than an image of three people in navy blue shirts and one in a polka dot pink creation.

But where group shots provide challenges, it also offers opportunities. My favorite aspect of groups is the compositional possibilities available by arranging the heads at different levels in you two dimensional image.

Rather than merely sticking everyone in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder, you are almost always better off with some people placed higher in the image than others. Perhaps you can even think about how the individuals relate to one another and try to convey this relationship in the composition.

You can, if you were photographing a very large family with children of different ages, arrange the people so that you have the mother and father at the center, showing their central role in the family, then place the eldest children at the back, so that they will appear at the top of the image, middle children can then go on either side of the parents, with a toddler or two seated on the parents?

THE GOAL IN studio portraiture is often to aim for extremely soft lighting.

Do try, however, to give you light a feel of directionality, meaning that it flows stronger from one part of the image than others, else you will run the risk that your pictures will appear to flat and your models to unnaturally featureless.

Airbrushing your images

No discussion of studio portraiture will be complete without mention of that marvel of the digital age, the airbrushing techniques.

In the old days of film photography, airbrushing was a highly specialized skill and the tools needed to do it was quite expensive, meaning that most portraits left even professional studios completely unretouched.

That is the case, no more. Today, even amateur photographers can have access to image manipulation programs which are available at very reasonable prices, some, like Gimp, are even free.

We will not be discussing this technique in detail here, but will do so in a future issue of the magazine, so keep your eyes on the site.

If you want to learn more about lighting techniques, specifically soft and hard light, have a look at our article on the basics of lighting.

For more on studio photography in general and specifically how to work with still life subjects, have a look at our still life photography tips article.

Intro to Studio Portraiture

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