Any kind of light is a must for photography. You just cannot photograph without light. There are various types of light that no doubt you are familiar with:
Natural light from the sun
Ambient light (could be natural or manmade)
Artificial light such as strobes, incandescent or tungsten, fluorescent, flash and LED lights
This article will give you tips for using two LED lights to achieve moody portraits.
Tip #1 – Modify your light
The best light is always modified. Even sunlight is better with a diffuser. Direct sunlight produces hard shadows and harsh light. Clouds soften and diffuse sunlight (by making it spread over a larger area). On a bright cloudless day, shooting in open shade minimizes the harshness, but still takes advantage of the beautiful natural light. Shooting in shadows, located next to reflective surfaces, also leverages any bounced natural light. These techniques are simply modifiers of natural and available light.
Modifiers are more obvious for artificial light. There is a plethora of choice when it comes to these: soft boxes, diffusers, reflectors, foam cores panels, umbrellas, flags to name a few.
The same is true for LEDs when it comes to the need for modifiers. There are many types of LED lights, including ones that you can adjust their brightness as well as colour temperature. But, just like the above, regardless of brightness intensity of the continuous light, it is essential to modify LEDs to get soft, pleasing, beautiful light -overall a better quality of light.
I’m going to show you a setup using modified LEDs to create moody portraits.
Using a window to camera left and an LED, bounced into a diffusion panel, to the right.
The main light I used here is the Magic Tube, the cheaper alternative to Westcott Ice Light. You can adjust the brightness of the light, and it comes with a tungsten gel if you need it. Apart from looking lightsaber Star Wars cool, the Magic Tube also comes with a charger that allows continuous charging while it is being used. So you can always have access to power by just plugging it in if the battery charge runs out.
You can also use window light and just one LED for this setup. Substitute the main light with your window light, but make sure you are diffusing the light coming from a window with a sheer voile, or fabric to soften it.
To diffuse the main light, I covered it with the Rogue Bender diffuser for the strip light. This is just a piece of rectangular translucent material which simply covers the light.
Tip #2 – Position your lights for contrast
Position the main light at 45 degrees to the subject, up high to emulate light coming from a tall window. Use a diffusion panel or a piece of sheer fabric. The less opaque the fabric, the more diffuse your light will be. To further modify the Magic Tube after I have attached the Rogue Bender diffuser, I also used the diffusion (translucent part) panel of a 5-in-1 reflector and had an assistant hold the panel in front of the main light. Having these two diffusers together reduces the strength of the light, but also greatly softens its quality.
The second light is also an LED, this time a small video light positioned to camera right, at 45 degrees, but at the same height as the subject. However, instead of using a diffuser to modify this light, you can turn it around so the light faces away from the subject, and put a reflector in place to bounce the light on. The subject (filling in the shadows) gets illuminated by the soft bounced light from the reflector.
For a moody look it is essential to have both light and shadow in the portrait. You need to watch where the main light falls, and the shadow it’s creating. You want the shadowed area to still have some detail, instead of being completely black. The bounced light from the reflector takes care of this.
Tip #3 – Use a dark background
I tried the exact same setup, although the lights were positioned the opposite way, with the main light on camera right. This setup had a lighter background, in this case lightly patterned, and the results were far from moody. I did not want to shoot at a smaller aperture as I wanted to blur the pattern of the wallpaper in the background. I also wanted to emulate sunlight shining through a window illuminating a dark room, and this setup just did not work to achieve that look.
I’m sure if I had gridded the main LED to avoid spill into the light background, while increasing my shutter speed, the background would have gone darker, but I would have lost the soft and atmospheric look I was after. Compare this photo below to the one underneath it, and it’s pretty obvious the darker background is most definitely better at achieving the moody look.
I hope this article gave you new ideas to try. Do share other tips you have to achieve moody portraits!
Props: are they a blessing or a curse? In photography, props can often make or destroy a photo, and because of this some people try to avoid them, some are afraid to use them, and other people love to use them.
I moved from being afraid to loving props because I found they are amazing tools to unlock creativity.
Freshly squeezed coffee. A different way to prepare a fresh cup of coffee.
Why use props?
Usually, the role of the props in photography is to help add character and interest to a photo, or to add context to the scene.
Some kinds of photography, such as conceptual photography, cannot exist without props, as they are needed to translate the abstract concept or message into an image.
Props in commercial photography
In tabletop photography (product, food photography, and still life), props are used to build the scenography of the photo you are crafting.
The teapot, the plate, and tea leaves are all elements of the scenography used for the pile of chocolate biscuits in this a classic food photograph.
Props in landscape photography
Props are sometimes present even in landscape photography, usually with the task to add interest to the foreground. A classic example would be to photograph a camp site in the wilderness, with a lit tent under a starry sky.
This tent is, indeed, just a prop. I brought it along with me solely with the intent to add interest to this nocturnal landscape.
Props and portrait photography
Using props will also help you to create more interesting portraits. Are you into self-portraiture? Cool, but there is only so much you can do with your face, and after a while you will probably feel the need to start using props, The more creatively you can use them, the better and more interesting your portrait will be.
A simple ball thrown in the air with a bit of timing can make for a dynamic, “It’s a kind of magic” portrait.
So, props are all those objects that photographers add into the scene they’re photographing that are not the main subject of the image. I don’t consider hats, jewelry, wristwatches, and all those accessories your model wears for a portrait, to be props.
Another plus with props, especially in portraiture, is that they can help your model to be more comfortable in front the camera by giving him/her something to do or to focus on, thus forgetting about you and your camera.
A prop in the hands of a 3 year old toddler (my son in this case) can lead to interesting results without making a fuss.
Things to look out for using props
So where is the problem with the use of props? Why people can be negative about them? My guess is because they are so widely used in photography that the risk of fall into photographic clichés is quite high.
Below are five tips to help you be creative with props, instead to fear them.
Before you continue allow me a final word. While it is true that many things can be do inside editing software, to really exercise your creativity don’t be a lazy photographer, craft your images for real as much as possible.
I consider the flame and the smoke in this photo of a hot pepper to be props. The fun in crafting the image with real fire and smoke was unbelievable.
Tip #1: Use a classic prop in a fresh way
Old film cameras are classic props in portraiture, and the ways to use them are variations of my son’s portrait you saw above.
Among those cameras, the most photogenic ones are, in my opinion, the TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras, such as Rolleiflex, Rolleicord and Yashica. Because these cameras have a huge focusing screen you have to look into from above, the usual way to use these props is to have your model look down into the camera.
A less common way to use those TLR cameras as props is to take advantage of their massive focusing screen, which is many time larger than any SLR camera viewfinder, and to photograph the scene the TLR camera is seeing.
Once you get the setup right, don’t stop after the first shot, but experiment with poses and props.
To reveal the child inside us.
Tip #2: Build your own props
Another way to get creative with props is to craft them yourself. This will not only ensure you have unique props to work with, but the whole process of making the props will make you think more creatively about how to use them.
A one meter long, origami paper boat, and a yellow balloon are good props to make one of my son’s fantasy and childish adventures come to life.
A fantasy childhood adventure gets real in this photo.
If you are into origami, and tired of taking the usual portraits of your children, you could try to create adventures for them by folding big paper planes or animals, or whatever you know how to do with a piece of paper. Plus, you can find plenty of origami tutorials waiting for you online.
Once again, it is true you could easily compose the adventurous portrait of your child by adding elements to the photo later in Photoshop. But, again, what fun would that be for both of you?
Tip #3: Break the physical laws and go surreal
One of my favorite prop to work with are helium balloons, those you usually buy for parties. They are colorful, cheap, long lasting and very versatile.
Inspiration for their use is everywhere; have you watch the animation movie Up recently? Cool, wouldn’t it be fun to fly away holding tight to a bunch of balloons?
Up, up we go. Here the low key really helped a lot to make the pose believable.
What about breaking the physical law by playing “tug of war” with those balloons, instead?
Up and Down are quite arbitrary in this kind of photos. Here I was lying down on the floor but I tried to keep my shoulder off the ground, so that once I turned the photo 90 degrees counterclockwise, the pose was still believable. The low key helped by getting rid of the floor.
Tip #4: Prep your props
Sometimes, you can obtain something original just by prepping up a classic prop, such as the omnipresent book. Books are often used to fill a still life scene, or to get more interesting portraits.
A funny contrast between the surprised grown up, rude, and bearded man, and the book of one of Winnie the Pooh adventures.
To make things more interesting, dynamic and less cliché, you can prep a book by sprinkling body powder on its pages and then have your model to blow the dust off while you take the photo. Or have him slam the book shut just before you fire the shutter, so to record of white powder flying out the book creating clouds.
By adding body powder to the mix, you can obtain much stronger and dynamic portrait.
Powder makes things much more interesting, and the only limit is your creativity (or the absence of a working vacuum cleaner to clean up after the mess). You can sprinkled some body powder on a ball (another common prop) and make your model hit it with the hands just before taking the photo. You will capture great puffs of powder, helping to convey a feeling of action and power.
Basketball and body powder mix in interesting ways.
Tip #5: Go crazy with conceptual photography
While it is challenging per se, I consider conceptual photography to be the best playground to learn to be creative with props.
When you do conceptual photography, your subject will be a concept, and the challenge is to translate it into an image by using props. At first, keep it easy, and don’t be afraid to get inspired by the work of other photographers.
The chicken’s great escape, a concept I saw online and I made it mine by using my personal style, and adding the escaping chicken.
Because you want to convey a message, even with the simplest setup, you have to pay attention on how you place your props into the scene.
In the previous photo, the dark, out-of-focus chicken in the background is there to give the idea of the chicken moving away from the egg. While the broken shell with marks on its inside make the viewer think of it as the chicken prison. Had I placed the chicken in the foreground, in-focus and well lit as the egg’s shell, the message would have lost some strength.
When you do conceptual photography, do not focus on the photography aspect at first, but let your ideas and concepts spawn naturally from your everyday life. Are you cooking your favorite food? In that moment the idea that photography is a bit like cooking could strike you.
In photography, as in cooking, you combine what reality puts in front your lens (the ingredients) to create your vision of such reality (the finished food).
This idea struck me once and this was my personal way to translate it into a photo: the ingredients are the colorful paper rolls in front the lens of an old TLR camera, and those ingredients combine in-camera to reveal an origami nocturnal seascape crafted using the paper from the rolls. Photography magic.
The fun of doing the origami seascape for real and the challenge to frame, focus, and light it, so I could photograph the scene through my old TLR camera, was so much more than just use an editing software to copy/paste, move, rotate, resize and bled all the different elements together.
Once you start this game, you can find concepts everywhere; was your Mexican food too spicy even for a chili lover as you are? Something like that could pop in your mind.
The most useful kit for us chili lovers.
Bonus tip: The hunt for props
Now you know how you can get creative with props in many ways, even using common ones, but it is always good to hunt for more interesting ones.
A good way to hunt for unique and weird props is to visit flea markets and shops selling kitchen supplies, vintage clothes, and such. And then, as usual, once you’ve got your props, use them in a fresh and unconventional way.
A variation of the concept shown in the photo opening this article; the same concept can be photographed in many different and original ways. Creativity is your only limitation.
Once again, the way you use and prep the props is crucial to create a convincing image. The coffee stains on the table and the squeezer, the squashed and broken capsules, and the smoke from a hidden candle, make the viewer understand what the meaning of the photo is, and the reason behind those props.
Don’t be afraid to use props in your photography to add something more. Just remember to use them wisely and creatively to push your photography further, and to avoid falling into photography clichés.
If I show you two different portraits, one with a blurred background and one with a sharp background, you will automatically prefer the one with the creamy bokeh. Why? Because that’s just how it is. No, the bokeh effect is very flattering because it isolates the main subject by separating it from the background.
If you did not know, bokeh means blur in Japanese, and it is purely aesthetic.
Most portrait photographers blur their backgrounds, and I certainly do it because when I take a picture of someone, I want the viewer to focus on the person’s face and not what’s going on behind them.
Portrait with nice bokeh in the background.
I always want good background blur when I shoot portraits, that’s one of the main reasons why I shoot on Aperture Priority and let the camera do all the rest of the work. My minimum shutter speed has to be 1/100th, so I increase my ISO to 400 to compensate – this is for portraits with natural light.
Bokeh basically depends on how shallow your depth of field is (note that the further the background is from your subject, the smoother the bokeh). Depth of field depends on three main things
In this image, the bokeh looks really good because the background was really far from the subject (the bird).
The Aperture Matters!
The bigger your aperture (smaller the f-number), the shallower your depth of field (e.g., f/2.8 is a large aperture opening, and it creates shallow depth of field).
The first thing I did not understand when I first started photography is that I used the biggest aperture on my lens but the background was not completely blurred.
At that time I used the 18-55mm canon kit lens with its maximum aperture of f/3.5. The user’s manual on my camera told me to just use the smallest f/stop on my lens and I would automatically blur the background. However, they did not mention a lot of other factors to get this result, like how big should my aperture be. After hours of trying to get a background blur with my aperture of f/3.5, I was left very frustrated because I did not get the results that I saw on the internet.
I later understood that bokeh depended a lot on how big my aperture was – I wanted to get bokeh for portraits with a focal length of 50mm. I had to buy a lens with a bigger aperture to get a completely blurred background, and the Canon 50mm f/1.8 was the answer. It is a relatively cheap lens to get started with portraits. You can find other lenses with an aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.2 but the bigger the aperture, the more expensive the lens.
Portrait with an aperture of f/1.8
With a regular lens like 50mm, you will start getting nice bokeh starting from f/2.8. So lesson number one is to buy a lens with a really big aperture – this is the first way to achieve flattering background blur. You probably know this already, but this is important to mention before giving the two other points.
With a big aperture, you will be sure to get a nice background blur. But, there are other ways you can blur your background without having a wide aperture.
The camera to subject distance controls the depth of field
Let me show you my point: lift your right thumb (or left thumb -it doesn’t really matter) in front of your right eye and stare at it while closing your left eye. While focusing on your thumb, notice that you cannot clearly see the background. Now move your thumb farther away from your eye, keeping your thumb in focus. You will notice that the background won’t be blurred anymore. This works with your camera the same as it down with you eyes. The closer you get to your subject, the more blurred the background will be.
At 40mm, f/5.6 you can see that I’m not getting any bokeh in the background.
At 40mm, f/5.6 you can see that with the same focal length and aperture I can get a nice bokeh by getting closer to the tree.
At f/1.8 I get a nice bokeh with the 50mm lens.
Still at f/1.8 with the 50mm, if I get closer the effect gets more intense.
I understood this when I finally managed to get nice bokeh with my kit lens (I still did not have my beloved 50mm f/1.8). I used to practice my photography, and background blur on a tree. The f/3.5 aperture was not good enough for me so I tried different things. The first satisfying bokeh I got was when I focused my camera really close to the tree.
If you take a second and think, you will realize that all the macro photography images have a shallow depth of field, therefore a smooth bokeh. This is because macro photographers get really close to their subjects.
By getting close to your subject you will blur the background.
Here I used a zoom macro lens (at 300mm) and got as close as possible to the leaf.
Here I used an aperture of f/1.8 with the 50mm, and got as close as possible.
Even if you have an aperture of, let’s say f/5.6, if you get your camera really close to your subject, you will have a blurry background.
Note that macro photographers use special lenses that enables them to take images really close to their subjects. Standard lenses have a limit regarding their focussing distance. If you cannot afford a lens with a big aperture nor a macro lens, extension tubes are a good solution to extend your focusing distance.
The shorter the distance between your subject and the camera, the shallower the depth of field will be. The bokeh really depends on that distance, because I can shoot a landscape scene with an aperture of f/1.8, and there will be no background blur. That is because there is a huge distance between my camera and the subject I’m trying to photograph.
The lens focal length changes the perceived depth of field
If you cannot get close to your subject, but still want to isolate it with a background blur, then use a long focal length lens.
Image taken with a long telephoto lens.
The cool thing with longer focal length lenses, is that you can photograph portraits, wildlife, macro, and isolate anything you can’t get close to. The other advantage is that you don’t need a large aperture, an aperture of f/6.3, for example, will give you creamy backgrounds.
A longer focal length will appear to give you a shallower depth of field, because the subject is compressed, and the isolation between your subject and the background is more important.
A shorter focal length will appear to give you a larger depth of field. Let’s go back to the example of the tree. If I put my aperture at f/4 on a 16mm lens in front of the tree, the background will appear quite sharp. Whereas if I focus on the tree from the same distance, with the same aperture, but with a focal length of 50mm, I will notice that I get a background blur and a shallow depth of field.
Taken at f/5.6 and 70mm.
Taken at f/5.6 and 300mm without moving.
So you must be thinking: the best bokeh you can get is to have a long telephoto lens, focused really close to your subject, with a really wide aperture. That’s pretty much it!
The sad part is that these lenses are very expensive. But, I have two portrait lenses, and together they cost less than $400 – and, I am still able to take good looking portraits with nice bokeh. So it’s about combining these things, the best you can with the tools you have.
Travel photography has been captivating people for years. But capturing unique travel photos isn’t easy, and often people who are starting out make the same mistakes several times. There’s no doubt that a well composed, and well lit travel photograph, with an interesting subject, has the power to convince someone to head to a destination.
Here are seven mistakes to avoid when doing travel photography:
#1 – Taking Tourist Photos
If you type any famous landmark or location in the world into Google, or any image library, you will likely get thousands of images showing up in the search results. So the reality is that it is becoming more and more difficult to capture unique photos. But that is the challenge for you as a photographer. Most photography editors will tell you that they do not want photos that are the typical tourist photos that you see, simply because most people have seen those hundreds of times. But how do you make yours unique?
This comes down to three things.
Do your research so that you know what already exists. It’s not enough to simply look at a handful of photos; you need to understand everything from the angles, to the weather and the lighting.
Be creative and think of a unique way to showcase the subject. This part comes down to your creativity, and largely to the amount of research you have done.
Commitment to ensuring that you capture the photo, even if that means waiting around somewhere for hours for the perfect conditions, or having to return later until you can get the shot.
Beyond these there is also a fourth way, which is to get lucky. Sometimes, you will get to a location and find something happening – be it with people, animals, or even the weather – that will give you a stunning, but different photo. Unfortunately, those days are few and far between.
#2 – Avoiding People
A location’s people are as integral to our experience of it as the famous buildings or landmarks. But unfortunately many new photography who are starting out in the travel genre, avoid photographing people because of shyness. Most people are friendly, and if you make the effort and spend the time to get to know them, they will be more than happy to accommodate you taking their photo. So don’t be shy, because all you are doing is denying the viewer a crucial part of the story.
#3 – Being Lazy or Impatient
I’m always amazed when I see people come to location, take a snapshot and move on. Removing the photography element all together, how can you possibly enjoy and experience a location, if you are simply jumping from one place to another?
As a travel photographer sometimes it’s easy to be lazy and impatient. After all, why wait for two hours for the perfect light, when you can take a photo and head back to the hotel and sit by the swimming pool? But part of the reason that we are fascinated by travel photos is because they show us a glimpse into another culture. The only way to do this is to make the effort and spend the time, not only to understand and appreciate it, but also to execute taking the photo.
#4 – Photographing from the Viewpoints
This way to “sunset point”. Every traveller and photographer has seen these signs wherever they have gone. Sometimes these “viewpoints” are magnificent, and in some circumstances and conditions they are absolutely the place you should visit and photograph from. But the majority of the time they are simply the most accessible place for the masses, and as a result, a view most people have seen.
So you have two choices, either try to capture a unique photo from that point, or find a unique view. The latter will require more effort, hard work, and sometimes cost more to achieve. The decision will ultimately rest with you.
#5 – Forgetting the Small Details
One of the great things about photography is that it allows us to capture the small details that are often missed with the naked eye. After all, it’s so easy to get caught up in the big beautiful scenery, and miss the smaller details that often sit around it.
Sometimes, it’s these small details that actually enhance the experience of a location through photos. So always remember to look around for unique moments or details that you can capture on your travels. They will help diversify your portfolio and give a much more intriguing angle to your destination.
#6 – Travelling with Others
One thing that I learned a long time ago is that photographing while travelling is completely different to travelling to take photos. However hard the latter is, it’s even more difficult when you are travelling with other people. Be it, friends, family, or a tour group, most people don’t have the patience, or the interest, to wait around for you to take photos. You soon end up in a tense situation, which means you can’t get what you want done and other people don’t enjoy their trip.
The best way is to separate the two completely, and either use a trip as a holiday with the focus being on relaxing and enjoying yourself, or consider it work. If you do find yourself in a situation where you are travelling with other people, try setting yourself a few days or even a few hours where you can go off on your own.
#7 – Forgetting to Enjoy Yourself
As much as you need to dedicate yourself to the photo when travelling, you still need to remember to actually enjoy yourself as well. Like any job or hobby, if it starts to become a chore and you no longer enjoy it, this will reflect in your work.
Ultimately you are in a place that is new exciting so make sure you allow yourself some time – even if it is just small windows – to enjoy the experience of being there.
Travel photography is a wonderful job or hobby, and most people have a list of destinations that they would happily travel to, and photograph. This means that motivation to photograph it well is usually not an issue, so with a bit of hard work and by avoiding some of the mistakes, you can capture wonderful photographs.
Have you learned from any of your travel experiences? Please share them below.