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.

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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.
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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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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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Create drama and mood in your portraits with cinematic color grading in photoshop

Photo retouching is a complex art and it comes with countless options and possibilities. In fact, the only limitation is your skills and imagination. Color grading is one of the last steps in my editing workflow in photoshop. It is best to leave coloring and toning until the image is fully edited. Any changes to contrast, sharpness, vignetting, etc. will amplify or reduce colors and saturation. Those always effect toning and mood of the photo so again it is best to wait till you are sure that the image is finalized. 

 model: Apple Nicole

model: Apple Nicole

Having said that, very often it happens so that I revise my editing either after I finish working on it, or the next day. While retouching a photo I change the zoom very often, so I switch between details and global scale all the time. It is possible to miss certain things when I am redirect a narrow focus to a problem area. It is essential to review your work after you are happy with the final result. If you are a obsessed with details like I am, you will always find something to be fine tuned.

The way you color grade your image will depend on the model, mood, lighting, retouching style, your photoshop knowledge, artistic concept and vision the photo was taken with, and so on. There is no recipe for photo toning and no preset that should be applied. Every single time you will encounter different colors on your images, so the color values that you will apply during toning should match those. Applying presets and photoshop actions is a lazy way out and produces rather poor results. Take your time, look at the building blocks of the image and try to sense what type of toning would fit this particular photo. It is your art and your decision, do not let presets created by others mindlessly decide for you.

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Importance of matching colors and tones with the mood of a photo

Human skin is very complex in terms of tonal shifts and colors. Depending on the light used during the shoot, you can achieve different results. Light decides everything: mood, composition,  colors, tonal shifts, and so on. Then, during photo retouching, you will need to deal with things like color casts, skin blotchiness, imperfections of skin texture, shadow and highlight bending and uneven transitions between them, discoloration in highlights and excessive saturation in shadows, difference of skin color temperature or even hue depending on the size of the light source used, etc.

 model: Nami

model: Nami

Photo retouching is an extremely powerful tool which allows me to complete my artistic vision. I do not care about how things should look like, all I care about is what feel and mood I want to convey. Photo retouching should not be a result of happy accident or what you think others will find appropriate, but a creative tool for finalizing YOUR idea. The same as with photography rules, you master those to break them. Composing a photo is like falling in love, you feel it, you do not think about it or analyze it. There are no limits to art, as long as it does not feel forced or fake. Photography and photo editing should be naturally inspired by what you see and what it makes you feel like. This is also why taking time to choose photo for retouching is of no less importance than the editing process. Not rushing through the retouch or using photoshop presets mindlessly will only benefit you at the end.

If the toning does not match the mood of the photo it will be a visual cacophony. You are composing a symphony, and all the instruments have to be in tune with one another. But understanding all this is not enough. You need a good connection with your model or client, a connection strong enough for you to either capture an emotion that is real and not staged, a moment in between if you will, or be able to evoke it. Only then you will fully understand the mood of your own photo. At that stage a direction in which you should take your retouching will become clear.

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How to retouch a male portrait in photoshop - a few quick tips & speed art video

First thing to realize is that you should usually retouch women and men differently. Most of the retouching techniques are identical, but they are applied with different strength or in a slightly different manner. For instance, the most obvious would be skin retouching, which is a huge part of any portrait editing workflow in photoshop. In most cases, for girls, you will emphasize smoothing not only tonal transitions but also invest lots of time on skin texture smoothing, preferably via the taxing process of micro dodging and burning. Now, men usually look better in hard light and with rougher skin texture. Sometimes you will even want to enhance that roughness, it all depends on what sort of effect you want to achieve. Since women look better in soft light (although not always), naturally you will want to make therm appeal softer. That leads to the contrast (for example though macro dodging and burning) and micro contrast intensity issue (it is a rather vulgar comparison but think here in terms of clarity slider), which can be easily cranked up when you work on male portraits. Even tonal transitions can be harsher in male portraits, but this is not always the case. You will also spend more time on removing imperfections and skin blemishes in female portraits. For men, you can either remove them, or reduce their visual impact, or leave them as they are. Regardless on what you decide, always pay attention to the mood and light

quality in the photo, and the purpose the photo will serve. This applies to both sexes. For instance if you are shooting a headshot for an actor, you will want to stick to the original as close as possible, where in a promotional portrait for commercial website, you will want to make your model look as good as possible, and draw the attention of the viewer to their personality and aura, rather than face features. Below video is a speed art of a portrait edit in photoshop that I did for a friend of mine, a fellow photographer John Becker. The aim of the photo was to display him as a professional with a really sunny and outgoing personality (a mixture of confidence with accessibility), which is exactly who he is in reality.. Black and white high contrast edit allowed me to redirect the attention from the face features to face expression and the eyes. I also lowered the tonal value of the background. The light was very soft, so soft you could call it dull. I had to be really careful with skin retouching and I did very little of micro dodging. At the end of the video you can see a RAW file and final image comparison, so you can easily assess how soft the light was (only ambient light was used, no modifiers or reflectors). If you would like to learn more about professional portrait editing techniques watch my full length in-depth 5.5h long tutorial. Here is a link to a quick guide video.

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How to crop your images to make them look balanced and appealing

 Image after completing compositing and editing

Image after completing compositing and editing

Cropping images is an art and it is the final touch to your photo just like the seal of a Japanese calligrapher pressed at the very end on the work. There is a saying that goes "印鑑までの作品", which means "a (perfect) work (is one that goes) all the way to the (author's) seal". The same in photography, cropping is a very powerful tool in your photo editing arsenal. Most of my portraits are cropped in camera during shooting, but sometimes I create composites or change the background, like in this photo of Katie. She was cut out and placed on a new background, and since she wanted a circle shaped final shot I had to place her in the dead center of the frame (see the photo to the right). Now I would never shoot a portrait this way, unless it was for a poster with some promotional materials or texts waiting to be added, then I would make space for it. So, I had to go in and crop the image to make her really shine. Below you can see 5 different crops that I created and all of them have a slightly different feel. Crop 1 would be sliced in the headshot style for corporate use or for a bio on a website. Do not be afraid to cut tops of the heads, but when you do that make sure it is balanced with the space below the chin and around the face. Also pay attention to the background texture, it is important that it does not overpower the face, which is the main focus (scroll down to read more).

 Crop 1

Crop 1

Crop 2 is a perfect square, which is a common format used by social media pages. Two things you need to remember when cropping images for such sites. 1. the are in square shape, and 2. they are usually tiny, so make sure that the face is filling the frame as much as possible. I placed her a bit to the left hand side of the frame, to create asymmetry which is perfectly empowered by the intersecting diagonal lines (created by both shoulders and the eyes). This creates an illusion of a triangle shape, and goes well with slanting lines of the background. Dynamic crop introduces movement and since she looks dynamic and jolly it fits perfectly.

 Crop 2

Crop 2

Crop 3 is what Katie wanted for her page. Here I placed her eyes along the center line and cut off part of her right shoulder. The leading lines of the jacket going up and then curving with her face outline to the right forces eyes to circulate, which supports the shape of the crop. Note that Crop 1,2 and 3 have a corporate feel with emphasis on Katie but there is enough space for the background building to be registered by a viewer as an important element of the photo, even though it is out of focus. Background can be a powerful ally. 

 Crop 3

Crop 3

Crop 4 is more centered and looks it gives Katie more powerful image. Her being in the center suggests control, but at the same time her cheerful smile makes her approachable. This is a cross-over between a corporate shot and a more casual profile photo for a webpage. This could also be cropped lower, which would cut the top of her head and showed a bit more of the neck. I cropped it this way to move her eyes to the center.

 Crop 4

Crop 4

Crop 5 has a corporate feel again, but it is in a vertical orientation. I sliced the right shoulder and emphasized the other one which is in perfect alignment with the building. The part of the building to the left frames her from the other side and it creates a narrowing effect which pushes the viewer's eyes to her face. Those buildings also create a natural vignette which introduces contrast and redirects the attention to Katie. She is a bit off center to the left, which balances the way she stands, the direction she is facing to and mirrors the direction the light is coming from.

 Crop 5

Crop 5

If you are looking for a portrait photographer in Tokyo and you enjoy my style of photography then please contact me directly to discuss details or book a photoshoot. If you are interested in private photoshop workshops via skype desktop sharing feature, please see more details on my main page.