Category Archives: studio


One of the big challenges of studio shoots is the distinct lack of context. There are no circumstantial or environmental references available for the sitter – the scene has been deliberately emptied of all outside distraction in order to focus entirely on the face of the subject. Pros are able to deal with that, and know how to provide the photographer with facial expressions. Amateurs, however, often appear like deer in headlight – thrown into an artificial situation with the spotlight trained on them, literally. Well, not so my friend M___ who has sat for me several times for various projects. She is an absolute natural – almost all of her shots come out great. She has that “something” that makes people photogenic – and she is just great at letting go and simply fooling around in front of the camera.

The downside of that is that I have huge problems with the editing. I simply cannot decide which images to post-produce. I like them almost all. Invariably, with M___ as my sitter, I end up with far too many good shots. Which means I have to spend a long time adjusting them all… What a complaint to have… No, it is obviously a joy to shoot with someone like that. Hope there will be many more!


From classic b/w over to a burst of colour.

Beauty shot

Virtually unedited. There was not much need. She was perfect the way she looked and the way she posed. She let go and was not afraid to follow my directions. Despite 20 people surrounding us and observing her. The haughty look was just as good as the photos where she laughed and flashed a full-on smile. I took 24 pictures of her in total, and every single one was a winner. If anything was wrong, it was only my technical mistakes – focus off, or bad framing. Amazing. It just proves the point that the best results in photography come out when the sitter is either reckless or self-assured enough to not care what she actually looks like. Or if she trusts the photographer. I hope the latter was also the case.

Passport Photo Problem

Best thing about being a photographer? Being able to create a picture in a matter of minutes. 
Hang on. Anybody can do that. 
Heck, everybody has a camerahone these days, so snapsnapsnap we go. So maybe I need to be a bit more specific in my statement here.
Best thing about being a photographer? Having access to the gear and studio that enables you to create a useable image in a matter of minutes. 

You would think. I was called by a professional body to whom I had applied for membership. All-clear – membership processed (yay) but could I quickly send through my passport photo, high-res colour version, please? Duh. Hard to believe, and even harder to admit for a photographer, but I didn’t have a decent passport pic of myself in digital format. Arrrrgh. Typical. But hang on. I have a camera with 21 m pixels. And I have a studio at my disposal, too. It’s unfortunate that I don’t have a resident assistant, though, because I am slightly struggling with the concept of putting myself into a passport pic while simultaneously releasing the shutter. Another self-portrait exercise? Oh no, please, no!
So instead the present house guest  was roped in. I only needed him to push the button, but as usual the shoot turned into an exercise in problem-solving. While the current studio set-up was perfect for a passport portrait – white backdrop and big octabank softbox – there was one problem: yours truly’s feckin’ glasses!!!! Whichever way I shoved them up and down my nose, angled my face away from the light, moved the softbox up and down – we always caught two rectangular green reflections on my specs! Graaaah! Even with 10 foot ceilings the massive softbox was too big and still caused shadows on one half of my face. Good thing there was also another daylight lamp in there that was smaller and thus allowed us to get shadowless light from above. And still I had to resort to kneeling down and force my shutter release pusher on his knees, too, to get a clean shot. And I had to offend marky Mark by letting the shutter release pusher shoot on automatic – cos it appeared to be too much of a multitask exercise to control autofocus, exposure and f-stop manually…
Half an hour later we had the shot in the bag. Jeepers, how was this ever done in analog times?? Best thing of being a photographer? It should be that you have looooads of photographer friends who will fulfill all your photographic needs as they arise! At my disposal, please! You know who you are!

Black Thursday

Black Backgrounds. Love them. Thought I had them sussed. 

This is one of my earliest studio experiments. Way back more than three years ago, I undertook that scary task of doing some studio portraits for college for the first time. I didn’t know much apart from what we had gone through in class. I roped in my (unwilling but helpless) victim and sat him on a box in a big white room. Then I played with lights. Although the room allowed daylight in through three windows on two sides, the background was completely blackened thanks to a single harsh flash from the sitter’s left.

I was actually really happy with the outcome of the shoot, and even three years in, I still like this shot: I like the harsh light illuminating only half of the face; I like the dark background. I like that there is a colour difference between the background and the black jumper of my subject – the fact that there is actually a little bit of (three-dimensional) depth in this. And no Photoshop.

Three years on, things have changed. I have just looked through a shoot I did more than two months ago – and which I still hadn’t properly looked at. And right I was – my initial experimentation with a nude placed on a black background has totally gone tits up, if you pardon the pun. Just hasn’t worked at all. Perspectives are weird, three-dimensionality lost, light not illuminating the important bits, a lot of grain in the images. How the hell could that happen. How can you get some decent shots out of your first ever session – and utterly fail three years down the road? Beginner’s luck? Can’t be the fault of the camera, because “my 5d makes great pictures”whereas above picture was shot on a 350d. Actually, I know why – because I haven’t used a lightmeter for lack of same. Graaaaah.

*Sighs* Good thing, the black background pose was only the start of that recent shoot. The rest of the images actually came out looking good and there are some that I am quite happy with. Only concentrate on the good ones, I guess.

Don’t Stop Staring

As a photographer, staring is not only my delight, it is also my business. I love to immerse myself in an image, looking at all details of it, letting my eyes wander from its focal point to the fringes and back again, revisiting it after a while to see if I am seeing something new, researching the background (not the visual one but the hermeneutical one) to see if that brings new interpretations and connotations to the table.
I have been doing a lot of that, lately. It is one of the things that I have learnt in college. I hated it at first. I really disliked those tasks where we had to research our projects and show evidence in the shape of discussion of other photographers’ work. Looking at other people’s work, I thought, would keep me from creating something original myself. It would drown my own creative ideas. It would stump my own creative development. Of course the opposite is true: It widens the horizon and it sparks new ideas in the viewer.
I am not that actively shooting at the moment, but I have built up one routine: I regularly write image analyses, purely for my own enjoyment. I study the lighting, make assumptions on the intended message, guess the camera settings, search for signs of Photoshop and generally pick the image apart as much as I can. And it has already had one certain result: I am appreciating portrait photography more than I ever did. Because there is so much to see, even in a head-and-shoulders portrait taken in front of a neutral backdrop. The human body is just an infinite canvas of emotions and connotations. It’s in the angle of the head, the shape of the eyebrows, the look in the eyes, the props, the background, the mood of the photograph. Surprised though I may be – I think I like people photography more than I ever thought. Thanks for my inspiration – and my education.

Playing Around

I love colour. And I love playing. Great, when you can marry both interests together and produce something funny and colourful.

Recognise the scene? This image was shot as a still life exercise. The lighting consists of one lightsource, a softbox, that illuminates the scene from above. With the softbox from above I attempted to recreate the lighting as depicted by da Vinci – the scene in the original is illuminated from above. There are hardly any shadows on the table and the diners. This of course was necessary so that the facial expressions of the subjects are clearly depicted. I experimented with sidelighting as well. However, the figurines have only painted on facial features (eyes, mouth, beard). I found that the sidelight obscured the faces too much, as the figures were placed very close to each other. Lighting them from above instead illuminates their faces and gives a better overall result.

While setting up I already realised that my picture was going to be very wide but not very high. There is a rather limited scope to arranging arms and heads of the figurines. The bodies of the toys cannot be bent. This meant I had to place the figurines next to each other and avoid placing them in front of each other. Unfortunately that spread the scene even further. But then again, da Vinci’s original is about twice as long as wide, too.

The camera settings were f 6.3 and a shutter speed of 1/60. (I could have used a much faster speed here, but since I was using a tripod, it didn’t really matter that much, anyway.) The scene is arranged on black, shiny perspex. 

Amazing what you can create from your kids’ toybox…

Impro Rules

Something that occasionally holds me back from shooting slightly more “concepted” ideas, is the amount of organising it can involve. And by that I don’t mean agreeing on a time and day for the shoot but getting the necessary props and finding a suitable location. That was until a while ago, when I realised that improvisation is king. And that it helps when you are actually NOT control-freaking but willing to work with a bunch of people. Cos: The more the merrier. Never was this truer than at that shoot below.

I was shooting for friends of mine who needed promo pictures for their upcoming venture. The shoot had a James Joyce theme, and while I was not responsible for the art direction of the shoot, it was nonetheless the collaboration of us altogether, that produced some really good, funny, memorable shots. There are so many of them, I don’t even know which ones to show.

Which reminds me – must ask for that suitcase back. I think it went from prop to show stopper. In any case, the guys in the shoot were just so easy-going and relaxed, it made everything really fun. It obviously helped that the resulting images were not intended to be serious and highly aestheticized (anaesthesized???) fashion pictures, but more like a static re-enactment of a scene in a particular book (English Lit buffs pipe up now and impress me with your knowledge of seminal novels. Participants and relatives of participants of the shoot are excluded from entry. Your statutory rights are nor affected.)

Stars Behind My Back

Sometimes I feel as if I am 17 again. Cod, the insecurity. The worry. The heat. No, this is not a cross-posted private rambling on my mental well-being (mad – obviously), I am referring to the faltering self-confidence that I get hit with every once in a while. It gripped me last week when after a longish absence at long last I had a studio shoot on again. And I wondered, whether I still knew how to use the studio lights.

Silly really – you don’t lose a skill like that in a matter of weeks. But in any case, I had to test the set-up and the lights before I could go ahead with my model. The order of the day was going to be a nude shoot. And in the absence of willing guinea-pigs, I had to put myself in the picture. NO! Don’t worry. Neither did I shoot myself in the nip, nor did I photograph naked. I am merely saying that I had to pose for myself to play with some effects that I was hoping to employ.

Even on the technical level, it is challenging to photograph oneself. And I am beginning to wonder whether all those famous photographers’ self-portraits were actually executed with assitance? (For my top 5 favourite photographic self-portraits of all time check here: Marianne Breslauer, Ilse Bing, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray) I mean – save taking a picture of yourself in the mirror while you are looking through the viewfinder – how do you actually get the focus on yourself when you are IN the picture? Just the smallest aperture and then general guesswork? Autofocus while remote releasing? I sort of guessed the focus, set the camera on manual and then shot myself time-delayed. Surprisingly the result is presentable – minus the soft focus, of course.

And is it any wonder that my self-portrait happens to be b/w? Not when you have looked at the famous self-portraits above. Granted, some of them were made before the advent of colour photography. But b/w is always my natural choice for a self-portrait. Subconsciously, I think, they alienate the viewer from the ‘viewed’. Because the standard nowadays is colour, the use of b/w implies a conscious decision on part of the photographer. It seems to distance the sitter from the viewer, making the portrait a deliberate ‘likeness’ – but not a ‘sameness’. It is clear that a b/w self-portrait is only just ONE interpretation of self – possibly one that leaves the less savoury bits in dark shadow while highlighting the good parts?

I did do some post-production – obviously the cropping of the image, plus I added a kind of “starry background” as a nod to a publicity photograph which I really love (click). Some stray hair had to be photoshopped out, but I left the rest of it in there. I guess I am a bit disshevelled in real life. The portrait was shot with rimlight, as I wanted to experiment if and how the light from behind would light up fair hair. Otherwise I used a flash that was set up at 45° to the left of me. I even managed to keep any reflection off my specs. 

So this is me. One Saturday afternoon in August 2012.


Who would have thought it would be like this? There I am. With the luxury of a studio in the house. A recent development that is possible because a) I have the room and the connections and b) my friend has the equipment. On our own I haven’t got the gear and he can’t afford a studio space. Together, however, we can fly shoot. Hence we have pooled the resources and set up his gear in my house. All well all good. 
But what do you do when you want to practice studio photography and you haven’t got any willing victims? Right, you take what is there, plonk it in front of a backdrop and shoot away. 
Square – an unusual format for me. I do not particularly like squaring off my images (although I have done previously for my “Tracing Mainie” project), but somehow this turned out to be the right framing for this tin horse. (His name is Claus, by the way, and I am looking after him for a friend…)

Why are toy horses reminiscent of Christmas time, by the way? Anybody know? Somehow it has just occurred to me that this really looks like a nice ‘n’ neutral “holiday” shot for Christmas cards. Beautifully non-denominational, so as to not offend anyone’s religious sensitivities. *um* I guess one could also call it beautifully bland…

This was shot with a massive octabank softbox. So big, actually, that the light gets diffused so well, so wide, so evenly that it literally looks like daylight. In fact, when I showed my images to my friend, he thought I had not bothered to switch on the lights but shot with daylight, streaming in through our large windows. And even though the toy horse is made of metal and has a shiny surface, there is hardly any reflection on it (apart from that one hoof).
I can’t wait to test what this will look like with humans in it. Hehe, sounds scary, humans. But even if I am writing about “willing victims” – I am not looking to eat my sitters, I just want to photograph them. Volunteers, you know how to get in touch!

Photo Assistant

A lot of people sneer at the notion of assisting at photo shoots for free. I know, time is money, but:

Seriously, assisting is invaluable, priceless, even. Ok, I wouldn’t exactly pay to be asked to hold the reflector, move the lights or boil the kettle for endless cups tea. But there is a huge benefit in assisting other photographers with their work: You pick up their tricks – or you learn from their mistakes. The latter is what I experienced on a recent bout as an assistant at a commercial shoot. There were a few things that were what I surreptitiously would call “sub-optimal” – but I wonder whether I have the wrong end of the stick, here. So I would appreciate your opinion on the issues we experienced. Please comment, if you have one (opinion, that is).

Corporate headshots was what was on the cards at the shoot. After a few testshots, the photographer concluded that there was not enough light coming from the brolli light – despite the light flashing at highest setting. We were in a really bright room with lots of south-facing windows around noon in early spring. Light was streaming into the room. How come she had to go up to ISO 400 and shoot at 1/80? Presumably a really small aperture?

The set up was a grey backdrop from which the subjects were going to sit about 1,5 m away. I assume the photographer wanted them so far away to avoid shadows on the backdrop. Also, the backdrop was a bit creased, so the photographer didn’t want those creases to show. However, the light was 2m away from the sitters. I suggested moving the light closer to the subjects working on the assumption that the further away you move the light, the less intense it is. Therefore, if you moved it closer, it would get brighter. The photographer didn’t try that, though… Instead she decided to put a diffuser on a speedlight and I was to hold it up and illuminate the subjects with that. And in place of the reflector the brolli lamp was used to cancel out shadows on the other side of the sitter. What do you think about that kind of set-up?? This was not particularly effective – as I found it difficult to hold the speedlight up and direct it properly at the sitters. Nonetheless – my ridiculous enactment of a 21st century version of the Statue of Liberty probably worked well for putting a continuous smile on the sitters’ faces… (not on mine, though…)

Anyway, if you have any comments, I’d love to hear what you think about this?