How to compose with light in order to create stunning portrait photos

Difference between a good portrait photo or headshot and an amazing one is almost entirely down to the quality of light. Yes the background is essential, and so is the body language, but if light is poorly directed and its quality (hard, soft, diffused, focused, etc.) is not complimentary to the rest of the image then all will fall apart. To create an outstanding image you not only have to know how to operate with light, but also why and when to use specific techniques that will result in a natural and undisturbed energy flow through the whole image. In other words, when you look at it it has to feel natural, and you should not see any element that stands out to the extent that it dominates the photo in a negative way.

model: Nata

model: Nata

When I work with a new model and I have no idea how to light her face yet, I experiment and search, the I discover and conclude. Everyone has a different face features, and they come with various types of personality. This will require different lighting each time for each person. If you mount your light on spot A and place yourself in spot B every time you shoot, only because it is your safe spot and you know you captured decent images last time and 100 times before it, you will learn nothing and remain medicore at best. Think of your photography as a boat and your model as the wind. Set her lose and don't force posing, and let her steer you in a general direction of what she feels is natural in terms of positioning and body language. Then become a sail and adjust your course. Sailing against the wind is possible but why on earth would you do that.

model: June

model: June

Light should not only direct the eye around the photo but it should be an integral part of the entire composition. If you think about it, there would not be a photo without light. On the other hand even the most amazing model placed in a bad light will look terrible. So you have to be sensitive to body language, yes, but poses and angles that you capture those poses from have to be in symbiosis with the light and its quality. Do not copy and photograph what you can, capture what you feel you should in a given moment. Do not photograph what your eyes see, but follow your heart instead. If you appreciate the subtle differences of light angles, intensity, direction, and so on, your portraits will look much more rich, defined, and peaceful at the same time, regardless of how dynamic the message or subject of the photo is.

model: Saari

model: Saari

Editing is essential for your progress, and I cannot stress this enough. Forget Lightroom and leave it for lazy people. Diving into Photoshop will not only allow you to refine what you have captured in much better and more professional ways than Lightroom ever could but also will do something outstanding- it will slow you down and let you gaze at the image for longer time. You will improve your sense of composition, lighting, understanding body language and help you to narrow down and target your own shortcoming as an artist. Just like a tripod is great for studying architecture photography, Photoshop is amazing for improving your portraiture. Do not mass produce your images but create them. Not only that, if you start working with frequency separation techniques, which are the only way to professionally edit a portrait image or a headshot, you will discover how you can fix issues with shadows and even reshape face features. This is a superb way of learning the light and how it works.

Contact me directly for one-to-one online photoshop tutorials via desktop sharing.
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Fall in love with light, and people will fall in love with your portraits

Light is everything in photography. There is no images without any light, just black abyss. It sets the mood, it defines the scene and story, it shapes your thoughts, it directs you eyes, it moves your soul, it determines the energy flow throughout the image, it defines and complements the body language. Everything revolves around light and its quality in a photo. I am often asked by my photography students, what settings did you use for this image, or worse - what camera settings and aperture do you use in your portraits. And I hate hearing those questions not because the answer to it is I do not know but I do not want to know. I simply do not care. Neither should you. I honestly do not remember my camera settings because they are so deliciously unimportant. Instead, I remember the atmosphere, the shadows and how light fell on the model, or what shapes I saw, moments and flashes of images that my mind captured first and then they were recorded with a camera. Camera is a just tool, light is a journey. if you are lost in the scenery, you will not remember that you even hold a walking stick, let alone being aware of how you should be using it.

model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Learning your camera essentials is important, naturally, but to be honest, once the camera is set and all the annoying deep menu options and whistles are sorted out, all you will fiddle with is three values, shutter speed, aperture and ISO. So instead of thinking what camera settings you should be using, think of how the scene that you see feels. Is the light falling on your model in away that everything looks balanced and seems harmonious? If not, then change the lights, move yourself, change the angle. Learn how camera sees the world through the specific focal length and aperture and use it creatively. Learn to capture what you want by experimenting wit the camera settings and lenses, not the other way round.

model: Viktoria

model: Viktoria

Do not let the camera hold you back or define the limits of your artistic sense. It may take time, but it is worth it. I had a client recently who asked me if I have experience shooting Asians. It was so clear to me she had no clue on what it is all about. I replied: I shoot personalities not races, I shoot moments not expectations. Every time I shoot, I always bear two things in mind - light quality and environment. Model is my last worry, though it is very important to have all 3 elements in sync, other wise your images may not make much sense. It is the emphasis that you put on the subject of your photo by means of light what matters, and it is irrelevant whether it is a face, a gesture, a vista, or just few random stones on a beach. Fall in love with light and how it is being cast, and the rest will fall into place.

model: Erika Ito

model: Erika Ito

Contact me directly for one-to-one online photoshop tutorials via desktop sharing.
Portrait photography service, Tokyo - website
http://www.portrait-photography-tokyo.com/
Photography workshops in Tokyo: http://www.ryuurui.com/photography-workshops.html
Hire a photographer in Tokyo: http://www.ryuurui.com/hire-a-photographer-in-tokyo.html
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For more tutorials and how to videos check out my photoshop and photography tips and tricks YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEOVGZ2rpLhR7gSPvaexxxQ

Portrait photography is about capturing souls with your lens, not faces

Portrait photographs are are real life situations. some will make you smile and are pleasant to look at, while others will make you think, recollect or even dream. Capturing faces can be fun, but capturing souls is simply an enticing experience. Those are split seconds when your model is warped, zoned out, somewhere else in her past or future, traveling through memories or past experiences, her desires or wishes. Those are the moments when the time pauses for a second yet the captured expression itself is timeless. When the photo you have captured truly moves the model emotionally when she looks at it, then you know you have dug deep enough to touch her thoughts. And this is what I call a great portrait.

model: Iselita

model: Iselita

Photographing people without their social masks, real people, takes time and patience, it also requires mutual understanding, connection and good communication. You have to reach way past their private zones, to where whatever you say or do will have a direct impact on their mood. The emotional distance between people is what kills images, and as a portrait photographer you should learn how to minimize that distance to zero without having your model retracting to her shell of safety. Trust is essential here, feeling of comfort, and most importantly peace and quiet. This is mainly why I detest shooting portraits in areas crawling with people. It depends on the assignment or idea behind the shoot, and also on how many times I worked with a given model, but generally I avoid crowded spaces. Studio would sound like a good solution but studios have this clinical "I am about to get shot" feel. Outdoor sets, on the other hand,  have so many distractions where elements of city or nature that bring memories. Women react to sounds, smells, and those could easily project images, even more so for those with developed artistic side.

model: Nami

model: Nami

Another way to capture moody and intriguing images is by evoking emotions. Do not talk to your model, instead talk with your model. Even better, forget she is a model and think of her as a girl or a woman. Engage her mind, intrigue her, make her laugh or revive some memories by simply having a chat about anything that you both find interesting. It is all about disabling the defense mechanisms and removing shields of "gee I hope my lipstick isn't crooked". Make her forget not only that you are photographing her, make her forget you are even there. If you manage this for a brief time, then you got yourself superb images. Learn their face, how light falls on it and how shadows are created, use that to your advantage. Face expressions can be amazing but when complimented by appropriate colors and light they can be mesmerizing. If you think of human face expression as an art, then think of each photograph as a single frame from a story. It has to be self contained, but also open enough for a viewer to be able to adopt it to their own life story,. It always makes me laugh when people interpret poetry or paintings. What a bunch of fools. It's art, you are supposed to absorb it not analyze it. If a portrait photograph makes people dissipate emotionally, then you are not a photographer anymore, you are an artist.

model: Iselita

model: Iselita

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Create illusion of natural light with flashes and capture stunning portraits

Just like in life everything in excess is usually not the best thing. The same goes to artificial lights in photography. I love outdoor portraits, but I also like to mix lights for ultimate control of mood and emotions in my photos. Flash photography is often disliked by many people and the reason for it is simple. It is not about mastering flashes and exposure, but about falling in love with light and effects that you can create with it. Set exposure and measure light with your soul not the light meter. That is the key. Attune to your model's mood or evoke one, whatever you do the light quality should complement it, without drawing too much attention. You are painting with light, not following math equasions.

model: Mina

model: Mina

It depends on the effect you are going for but if you want to create an illusion of natural light with flashes then the key is to tone down the flash power and (often) use color gels that will complement colors or shift them to your liking. This photo that you can see above was shot few minutes before the sun dissapeared behind the horizon. The ligth was too weak to shoot crystal clear portrait but the light color was amazing, and the softness was too good to ruin it. I shot this at 1/250 so max shutter speed that my camera syncs with the flash (HSS would not give me enough power from one flash gun). I had to dial down the flash manually untill it felt right, I do have light meter but honestly I rarely use it. I used double diffusion with CTO gel for the flash to warm the light up. I callibrated WB with XRITE color checker before applying the gel, so then the orange cast would add on top of the corrected color. That gave the illusion of sunset color. Photo was cross processed so the final tones have shifted anyways (see the video below which shows my photoshop editing workflow) but it is important to have a good color base, esepcially for portraits. 

Experiment with light and forget about TTL if you are not in a hurry. And quite frankly I never am. I create image after image and time doesnt bother me. I do not care how long I have to shoot to get what I want. Also, you should master photo editing and preferably in Photoshop or any program that gives you superb control over layers and offers non destructive editing. Leave Lightroom for lazy people and those who edit their photos in bulk. They lack respect for their own work. Portrait editing is an art and requires time (see my 5h long in-depth photoshop tutorial on portrait editing), patience and vision. Get it right in camera for me means two things: to capture beautiful light and natural body language. The rest I not only can, but WANT to play with in photoshop. I love doing it.

Go outside and learn how the light works, study it and appreciate what it can do and what you can do with it. You will see world in a completely new light.

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For more tutorials and how to videos check out my photoshop and photography tips and tricks YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEOVGZ2rpLhR7gSPvaexxxQ

What are the key elements of a great portrait photo

Photography is all about light. That is it. Light determines composition, mood, colors, depth, and so on. Without light, all you would see is a black rectangle. However, once the light is cast, more elements come into play. Portrait photography is not about photographing faces. It is about photographing emotions, moments, personalities. If you focus on the face only, you lose depth and story. Face is not the subject here, the moment is. Just like when you photograph dancers, you capture movement, energy, gesture and composition, balance and grace, power and momentum. You do not photograph legs or arms.

model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Psychology plays massive part in portrait photography. Your job, as portrait photographer, is to search deep under the surface of social masks that everyone wears. They make people feel safe and invulnerable. You have to learn how to strip them off even just for a moment. Similarly to how street photography is about waiting and predicting a happening, portrait photography is about capturing and evoking split seconds of feelings and moods. Knowledge of body language is as important here as the ability of connecting with another human being. That connection has to be sincere so they feel comfortable and loosen their guard. This cannot be done in a haste, so do not rush your portrait shoots. This is also why I do not agree with charging per hour. It feels like mass production to me. I charge per each final image, and yes, post processing is the second reason here. 

It is said that the best portraits are taken when people do not realise they are being photographed. True, but for me this is a bit too invasive. One of the reasons why I am not comfortable with street portraiture, even though I do appreciate it's raw beauty, is because it feels unfair and even vulgar to invade other people privacy. It does not feel fair to me to steal those moments. I want to witness them, evoke and experience them, be a living part of them. Only then I can truly understand who is that I am photographing. In portrait photography the model knows that she or he is being stalked with a lens. And yes it is way more difficult to take a natural looking photo this way, but that is why a specific set of skills is required.

model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Key elements of portrait photo for me would be complementing light, natural body language, undisturbed flow of energy through the photo, and impeccable post processing. Perfect exposure has nothing to do with image being good. Far from it. Mindless following of "photography rules" will also get you nowhere. Photography is an art, not a science, even though there is science behind it. The energy flow relates to all elements including the background,, which is often overlooked and yet so important. Post processing is huge and I would never allow to be photographed by someone who does not edit their own photos. They are either lazy, too focused on squeezing more shoots to make more money, or simply lack artistic vision. I do not just shoot and edit, I shoot with a vision of editing. When I am asked to pass RAW unedited images to a client I am actually being insulted. I do not produce snapshots, I create photographs.

Complete portfolio in full resolution: http://ponte-ryuurui-photography.smugmug.com/Portfolio

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How to take portrait photographs of professional artists and performers

This is by far one of the most demanding and yet the most rewarding type of portrait photography that you can get into. Most of the people have no idea what portrait photography is all about, hell, they even do not know what they want. Everyone has their own style and they know what they like when they see it, but have difficulties with envisioning it. Just like you buy furniture in a store, when you see a sofa on its own it may not do much for you, but if you see the same sofa in a context of other complementing furniture, then it may make you think - oh wow this would be perfect for my house.

See Artists are different. We do not see trees, we see light synchronizing with amazing maze of shapes and shadows. We do not see city streets and cars, we see art in motion, a happening of movement, a game of kinetic energy and 100s of unique face expressions passing by. A true artist will never tell you, "man, just make me look good", most of them have a vision of what they want, but they are more than excited about bouncing ideas on the go with you. It feels like long vacations on Maldives for the soul.

So how do you shoot artists, performers, singers, and so on. Well, first do not get intimidated, get excited instead. This is the time when you can let your creativity go mustang. Remeber that it is essential to go outside your comfort zone EVERY time you shoot, otherwise you will not grow. On the other hand you need need to stay composed and know exactly what your client or model is after. Do a research on what they do and ask them all questions that you need to know regarding why and what for they need a portrait photo. It is challenging because you have to take their specific or abstract and loose ideas on board, and then imbue it with your own style. Photographers are, or should be, chosen by their portfolio. You are not going to book a photographer whose style is not appealing to you. It makes no sense.

Above is a portrait shot of Dobolo, a hip hop artist from Tokyo, who needed a photo for promoting his new song About to Blow (you can see the video clip below, created by a really talented videographer Jeremy Rubier. Dobolo needed a metro / urban portrait shot, that will be powerful but at the same time simple in form. It had to be a photo that will go well with the theme, message and vibe of the song. I used natural lighting only, breaking all rules of what you will learn when you start with portrait photography, which are to avoid hard sunlight, and always position your subject face towards the light. Well soft light would not work here at all. I had flash guns with me but I figured that the massive contrast between dark and light tones will actually bring this photo closer to black and white, making it way more impactful in terns of tonal difference. I needed space for the text but I did not want it to clutter the breathing space around him, so I was shooting with 16:9 ratio in mind. Also, I knew how I willl do the toning of this photo inside of photoshop and also that bringing down saturation and shifting tones in the photo will only emphasize light qualities.

Tiny angle change of the portrait gives it a bit more energy and modern look. It is a slight tilt, nothing too aggressive. It it were, then it would overpower the model, and since this is not high fashion, the model is actually important. It is not that in high fashion models are not important, it is just that the message being conveyed usually overpowers all other elements, and the model becomes an integral part of the image. In fashion photography it is about the art, not about models. Last but not least, notice how the fence behind Dobolo imitates a keyboard. It is not supposed to be evident but subliminal in a way.

Contact me directly for one-to-one online photoshop tutorials via desktop sharing.

Main website www.ryuurui.com
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Use photoshop to create what you want, not what others tell you is right.

If I do not say this no one else will. Fuck what others think. Photo retouching is an art and as an artist you are free to do what you feel is right. It is you who decides which way to go, and all you need to listen to is your intuition and heart. Art is about searching your path, constant improvement via experimenting. There is no room for fear and concern about what someone may think. Most of the people have an artistic sense of a boiled potato anyways, and are so jaded and brainwashed with constant flow of junk on Instacrap that they do not know what is art and what isn't anymore. They cannot function without being told, because it makes them feel safe and attached to a trend or social circle. There will always be those who appreciate your art and those who don't. You do not create for them, you create to stay alive and content. you create because you cannot live otherwise.

model: Apple

model: Apple

For me photoshop is like a gateway to freedom of expression. It all starts with a blank sheet or some raw ingredients in a form of images and I can do whatever I please. Every image has its energy, its aura and it will guide you though the process. Sometimes I immediately know how I want to edit an image, and often I shoot with a vision of editing. Nonetheless I may just change my mind half way, or wait even few weeks until I grow up to editing certain photo. Just like a seed planted in your imagination photos will grow on you.

All that however does not excuse ignorance and pigheadedness. Keep learning, discovering, looking around you and listening to your models. Some of them can have seriously cool ideas, just like the model you see on the photo above. She said "can you make me matte black in photoshop?" And I thought "hell yeah". Lots of them are performers or artists. Those ideas will challenge your creativity and skill. Artists should be like kids who learn while and through playing. Be mindful in your play but at the same time lose yourself in it.

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How to capture sumblime ethereal moments with your portrait phootgraphy

Do you need dreamy meadows and morning sun piercing through the fog to capture very soft and ethereal images with white vignetting around the edges to empasise the softness? Not really. In fact low key dramatic images that remove the background can be even more sublime than anything else. So what is the secret then? The mood and the post processing. And post processing is VERY important. The mood is something that you capture or evoke. It is happening during the shoot. As a photographer you need to build a connection with your models and learn their body language. How they react, behave, their face mimics, emotions and how to spark them, and so on. This is why I usually work alone, one on one with whomever I photograph. For me portrait photography is like ambient music, it is a one giant tunnel you walk into, or a beam of channeled energy that cannot be disconnected. If a model gets distracted, there goes your shoot or at least a theme.

model: Eccaia

model: Eccaia

The post processing is a massively important. Regardless of how soft your lighting may be if you do not know how to deal with harsh shadow transitions and how to accent certain areas like reflections in the eyes, or how to make other parts of the image become less visible and intrusive, you will not be able to achieve this result. It is a combination of mattified skin, smoothed out highlights and shadows, very selective contrasting and balancing the darkest and the brightest tones. Black and white is not always the way to go. Light and mood in your image is like music. Listen to it, and then you will know what genre it belongs to.

Last but not least, the composition must be in symbiosis with the mood and editing. You need to place your model in the frame according to the feel you are going for, or even better so - the feel you are capturing. Sometimes photographers focus so hard on what they envisioned that they are blinded to what is actually happening. Capture images like an artist not like a craftsman. Capture what you feel not what you see. Be like attentive and sensitive to what is going on in front of your lens, and learn how to adjust instinctively. It is good to have a concept for the shoot, but spontaneous moments make the best photos. It should not be your job to know how not to miss them. It should be your second nature and passion.

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