Master Class
Getting Back To The Basics
Some Lessons Learned While Teaching At The Palm Beach Photographic Centre

Photos © 2004, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

It was my first class at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre in Delray Beach, Florida. The Centre and I had known about each other for years, but never really connected. I had heard that this was a happening place. Wow, that's putting it mildly! This is where the elite meet to greet and work with one another. Top photographic talent is appearing there throughout the year. It's a cross section of everyone and everything that's good in photographic education.

Lectures, workshops, classes, photographic safaris to exotic countries, and much more--all in one location, and growing by leaps and bounds each year. I was thrilled to be invited to teach there.

My class was billed as an approach to contemporary portraiture. As all the participants agreed, where any attempt at contemporary and creative arts is concerned there must first be a thorough understanding of the basics. And so we began the week with a thorough indoctrination into the one lighting pattern that I use for just about all of my images (a modified loop light/short lighting), two poses upon which I base all my portraiture (basic and feminine), and the three camera positions that I go for when I'm positioning the lens of my camera (full face, 2/3, and profile).

The Setup
Here's a wide angle shot of exactly how my lights were set up to achieve the final 3/4 length seated bridal portrait. It's really not necessary to show the resulting portrait, because you can crop into the center of this photograph and see the final results. The only thing that I should mention here is that the white balance for this wide angle picture was set for incandescent light rather than for strobe. The results from the modeling lights are totally indicative of what happened when I took the final picture with flash and the white balanced set for flash.

The bride is seated on an ALM (Monte) posing stool. The height of the stool was set, so that when she crossed the knee closest to the camera over the other knee, the line from her waist to her knee sloped slightly downward. She is about 3 ft from the background (painted green because it is a cool color that recedes and tends to be the most complimentary color to all flesh tones).

The main light (one of four lights coming out of a Photogenic 800 ws Photomaster power pack) is approximately 3 ft from her face. It is coming directly through a Westcott Mini Softbox, aimed slightly in front of the bride's face, so that it also bounces off a Westcott Monte Illuminator (silver on one side/black on the other). It helped to wrap the main light around onto the other side of her face. The two main lights in the photograph are of equal intensity, mounted on Westcott boom arms. The booms allow me to position the lights exactly where I want them without having to worry about the light stands showing in the picture.

There are two low lights behind the bride: one pointed back through the veil and one directed toward the background. The hairlight, veil, and background light all help to achieve separation between the subject and the background. The main light, of course, shapes the face and contours of the body to create a three-dimensional image on a flat piece of paper.

The main light at that distance from the subject measured f/16, so that's what I exposed for. There was a fill light directly behind the camera that measured f/8, two f/stops less than the main. That's pretty much how I base all of my digital exposures in the studio; exposing for the main light, with the fill two stops less. All the other lights measured f/16 as well, thus keeping the entire area of the photograph within the boundaries that could be captured with my Canon EOS 10D camera. My photographs are all recorded on a Delkin 640MB memory card.

You can see that the groom is holding out the bottom of her dress, so that the finished photograph has a wide base to the composition. The picture was cropped just below her knees.

Facing Directly Into The Lens
Although most of my portraits adhere to the principle of keeping the body at a 45Þ angle to the camera for full-face pictures, I sometimes have created some of my most exciting photographs with the subject facing directly into the lens. That was the case for this portrait. As I was talking to the class I noticed that my model, Toby, was leaning on the posing table with her chin resting in her hands. She looked so natural. I took this picture, which turned out to be one of our favorites, because of the naturalness of her expression.

Using Window Light? Keep Your Distance!
Whether photographing by studio lights or window light, the posing and lighting are essentially the same. We were fortunate in our classroom to have a small window high on the wall. It became a perfect source for our main light.

The background here was a 4/6 ft Westcott panel. My point in doing a window light portrait of the exact same pose that I did in the studio environment was to show that the pose and the lighting pattern remained exactly the same. The main thing that I was illustrating here was that when I work with window light I try to keep my subject at least 6 ft from the window. At that distance the light is much less contrasty than when the subject is right next to the window. I set the white balance for window light pictures to "shade." I also usually increase the ISO from my typical 100 for strobe portraits to 200 or 400, according to the intensity of the light I have available.

When I put Toby together with her husband, Charlie, I positioned my lens to capture his profile over the 2/3 view of her face.

I tipped the top of his head back toward his left, so that I could see an exact profile of his face and see the side of his face, rather than the top of his head. I positioned his left hand around her neck and close to her cheek, " though you were letting her listen to the tick of your watch." I then raised her left hand to touch his fingers and show both of their wedding rings to the lens. The final touch was to lift her left elbow, again creating a good base to the composition.
See how I positioned the couple so that I had profile lighting on the groom, keeping his right ear in shadow? I lit just the left side of the bride's face with window light, positioning my reflector where I would ordinarily position my main light. Notice how the reflector is turned toward the window to pick up the light and then angled slightly toward the couple to bounce the light toward the bride and groom and wrap the light around the shadowed side of their faces.

Here in this picture you can see exactly how it all happened.

You see the height of the window, the distance of the couple from the window, and my reflector (camera-right) acting as the main light. You can also see a couple of the other things that I always caution photographers to see. For this how-to picture you're not really seeing a full profile of the groom, nor a good 2/3 view of the bride's face. He has also tipped the top of his head too much toward where my camera was. Had I photographed him in that position I would have seen more the top of his head than the side of his face.

Finding Ideal Portrait Conditions Outdoors
I look for two things when I go outdoors for portraits: overhead cover and direction of light. I usually find both under an awning, a tree, an umbrella, a hat, or close to a building. If I have to work out in the open, I go for backlighting or sidelighting and then use a flash to create directional lighting on the faces of my subjects.

This next picture was an absolute fluke. We were doing portraits outdoors in a park just down the corner from the Palm Beach facility when I noticed the unusual circle at the end of one of the tree's roots.

It seemed like a fun way to frame the bride's eye, so I did it. Hope you like it as much as I did/do.

As I usually do, I made an extra picture to remind everyone in the class how the effect was created.

This was one of the rare times that I photographed a subject against the side of a tree trunk. Usually the canopy of the tree is so low, the only place I can position my subject to get directional light is under the outside edge of the tree. This time, however, the tree had developed its canopy so high that there was good, directional light all the way into the tree trunk. A photographer/assistant held the reflector for me, pointing it up toward the sky to pick up the light, and then bounced the fill light onto her face from below, as I am more and more prone to do recently. Yes, I like the secondary catchlights in the lower portion of her eyes, especially since you can still see the more prominent catchlights from the main light source--the open sky to her left.

A Family Group
The family of one of the photographers/students came by to visit the classroom one day. I immediately hooked them to all pose for a family portrait. They weren't really dressed appropriately for a group photograph, but I felt as if I could make do. We soon located an ideal location, very similar to pictures I had made in Sarasota, under a covered church walkway with a series of arches on both sides. There was light coming in from both sides, but more light coming in from the morning light to my left.

My first thought, of course, was to find the location. That was easy--only a few hundred yards from the classroom. Next, I had to figure out how I was going to deal with the patterned tops that one of the daughters was wearing to match her mother's. I promptly decided to keep them together, blending their bodies with the older sister (in a light, white top...thank goodness). Keeping the three of them together was a given. Then, I could add the father in his dark clothing.

I began the group by seating the mother in the position that has worked for me countless times before. I had the youngest child put her arms around her mother's thigh and lean toward her. This kept the little girl busy, while at the same time helped to create a complimentary pose for the mother. I then added the older daughter on the other side of her mother, leaning her in as well. This leaning-in toward their mother is very typical of how I like to portray the closeness of a family, while at the same time it tended to be flattering to all.

At the time no flash had arrived at the scene, so I made the portrait with existing light. If I'd had my Quantum flash nearby with the TTL adapter for the top of my camera, I would have set the flash to go two f/stops less than the exposure. Would it have been the same with the flash as what you see here? Yes, for the most part, but I might have picked up more detail in the faces with a slight flash. Of course, at the same time it may have given me trouble with the mother's glasses, so after viewing the image on the back of the camera, I was just as happy not to have it.

As you may have noticed, I had all the women remove their shoes for the portrait, as their shoes were today's typical multicolored tennis shoes, which would have undoubtedly been a distraction in the picture.

After seeing that the children were no problems as models, I photographed them each separately and together. Since I'm always restricted to the number of photographs that I can publish with each of these articles, I'm only showing the one of the older daughter.

I posed her against a wall where she would pick up light from both sides. This helped to create beautiful highlights on both sides of her face. I noticed that the wall had a distracting texture to it that was emphasized with the cross lighting, so I softened the background with Gaussian Blur in Photoshop.

Specular Highlights: A Must When Photographing People Of Color
When photographing people of color I find it imperative to first split-light the face with one light source and then use a secondary light source to create my normal lighting pattern. The sidelight creates the specular highlights that are so necessary to show good detail in the face.

The subject was one of the photographers in the class. I faced him in the opposite direction from the bride, because his right eye was much smaller than his left. I know that in a situation like this I need to position the smaller eye away from the camera, so that you are looking into the wider portion of that eye. This tends to open up the smaller eye and give the appearance that they're both of equal size. In order to photograph his face going in the opposite direction I had to position my camera on the other side of the window.

The background in the picture was the reverse side of the black and white Westcott panel that I mentioned previously.

A Portrait Of The Director
The school's director, Fatima, needed a portrait for the numerous times people ask her for a picture for publication. Before she left for a trip to Peru with a group of photographers/students, she took a moment to pose for a series of photographs. After analyzing her face and photographing her from the proper facial angles, she (like the bride earlier in the week) relaxed at my posing table and rested her chin in her hands. It called for just one more picture, which, of course, turned out to be everyone's favorite. (Maybe next year she'll invite me to be another one of the photographic leaders to Peru.)
Then, of course, her husband, who runs the camera store in association with the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, needed a picture, too. He isn't a coat and tie person--strictly T-shirt and jeans. At least I made him put on a long-sleeved jean jacket, so that his bare arms wouldn't distract in the picture.

He wears heavy, dark glasses, which really didn't cause me much of a problem with the lights, but for his last shot I suggested that he remove the glasses and just hold them to the side of his face. The added kicker light that I used low and to his left created some great highlights to his face and helped to complete this character study of him that he absolutely loved. To his surprise, he later told me, the entire portrait sitting lasted only a couple of minutes.

"I guess the simple, basic technique that I was teaching for this class in contemporary portraiture all week really pays off!" I answered him. We all laughed.

By the way, in just a few years the Palm Beach Photographic Centre will be in their brand-new huge facility that's being prepared for them in West Palm Beach, Florida. That school is destined to be one of the greatest photographic facilities of all time. Fatima and her entire staff are to be congratulated for their untiring efforts.