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.

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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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Harmony between soft and dramatic light in balck and white portrait photography

Two extremes co-existing together in perfect harmony. Symbiosis in dichotomy. This photo is from a recent shoot with an American artist and model Mandy Jane. We set the shoot for 7 am in Yokohama. It was gloomy, rainy and cold, so we had to shoot anywhere with a roof over our heads. Most of the shots are from the underground tunnels in Minato Mirai. We searched for any place with good light, be it natural from outside, artificial or mixed. There is no perfect weather, light or place to shoot. If you understand how light works and how to control it or use it to your advantage, then you can shoot anywhere and anytime. But you can go even one step further, and reshape the light or change the quality of light in photoshop. This is why the skill of shooting with a vision of post processing is so important in my workflow.

Taking a great photo is as complex as sensing how to post process it. This shot was lit by natural light, with delicate influence of artificial ambient light. Light is soft and supple. It was coming through a huge entrance to the underground passages. Now, the light on Mandy's face is soft and delicate, just like her distant and remote expression. Light on the metal blinds at the background, is also soft, but their shape creates dramatic conversation between light and shadow. I purposely softened the light hitting the model even further, because I knew that I want to change the light quality of the background to much more powerful and hard. Parallel horizontal lines create another contrast, because they introduce stability and harmony. This photo expresses a quite intimate moment in a powerful and dramatic setting, but cocooned in a strong vignette which encloses the scene. This is also why I photoshopped out the bottom line which was too bright, and darkened the top one, and also warped the whole left hand side of the photo outwards.

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Finding a composition for a portrait photo in the chaos of shapes around you

For me portrait photography is about balance between body language of the model, quality of light and harmony of background elements. All pieces of the puzzle have to live in symbiosis. When I am out shooting I look for spots where one element is missing, and that element is my model. Just like in street photography, where one finds a place and then waits for that special moment to happen. That moment is the missing element of the composition or a story that I am trying to convey. Finding that balance and harmony is the most difficult thing to teach, because it will depend on how artistic or sensitive a person is. The same goes to everything in photography really, it is all about finding e perfect balance. Even more difficult is to understand, or be able to feel rather, how to introduce imperfections into the composition to create a perfect harmony. It really is a matter of sensing and weighting all segments of a photograph together. A great exercise to do is to pick one location, and without moving much try to find as many photographs as you can. Then , go back home, open them on your PC and think which elements fit and which do not. What mistakes you made, which elements you have not noticed when you pressed the shutter. Model: Nami

 model: Nami

model: Nami

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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

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