The Top Ten Mistakes in Studio Photography
This blog post is not about the
technical errors that a photographer might make with
the lighting or their camera settings, this is about
the bad habits that some photograpers fall into when
shooting in a studio. I've been running studio
photography workshops for a few years now, and there
are some things I see again and again from both
newbies and sometimes quite experienced photographers.
Photographers are very individual in their style and
how they work and yes, what makes a good photograph is
subjective, but some things will always mean that you
don't get as much out of a photoshoot as you could.
So let's take a look at some of the bad habits that I
see most often.
Not have an idea before you start shooting
Sometimes you have no idea about a client before they turn up for a shoot, sometimes you might just be mucking around and trying a few things out, but otherwise, when you're setting up a photoshoot, you should have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. Sure, you might change your mind mid-shoot or find that a different look would suit your subject, but in general, the quality of your shots will be much higher if you go into the shoot – or even just the individual shot – with A Plan.
Assume it's about the most expensive camera and lens
People often come into the studio with a startlingly expensive bit of kit and think that makes a great photograph. There are two problems with this thinking... First of all, photography – any photography, not just studio photography – is about light and composition, not kit. In particular, if you're shooting in full manual mode, a relatively basic camera will do the job just as well.
Secondly, you need equipment suitable for studio photography, which is not necessarily the most expensive stuff. For example, a zoom lens might simply be too long to fit your subject in or a camera may be too heavy to hold after an hour or two's shooting. An expensive fast zoom lens isn't needed if you're shooting with studio strobes either (you're unlikely to be down at F2.8 anyway). Sometimes I'll shoot with a dirt-cheap 50mm prime lens and a six-year-old cropped-frame camera and I'll still get great shots! It's not about the camera.
Shoot from the same distance and angle
So you've set up the backdrop, you've got the model in the right spot, the lights are all set up, you've worked out your camera settings... and then you shoot from exactly the same spot – front and centre! – all afternoon. For a start, you'll get a whole bunch of very samey shots. But, more importantly, you're not using the potential of your position and the lens' focal length to create a great shot.
To get a really great shot, you might need to alter where you're shooting from, the angle that you're shooting at, how close you are to the subject, and your focal length. Despite what some portrait tutorials will tell you, the best shot won't always be from some distance away with a long focal length and at eye level – so move!
Don't use the modelling lights
As well as a flash, studio lights have a modelling lamp - this is just a continuous light that can be set at a power that is proportional to how strong the flash is going to be. The studio photographer can use this light to see where the shadows will fall, where the catch-lights and hot-spots will be and – with practise – what the final image will look like. However, many inexperienced studio photographers will take the shot, and then look at that dinky little screen on the back of their camera to determine how good their shot was. This takes an unnecessary amount of time and disrupts the flow of the photoshoot, and that little screen is really not big enough to quickly assess whether every element of the shot was correct. So use the modelling lamps!
Under-expose white and over-expose black
If you're shooting a high-key shot, you want the backdrop to be white. On the other hand, if you're doing a dark, low-key shot, then you may want the background to be completely back. Many photographers, when they first come into a studio, look at the histogram on the back of their camera and adjust their exposure so the peak is sitting nicely in the middle. And what does that make? Grey. If you're trying to shoot with a white or black background, you need to be sure that the lighting is set up suitably - a white background requires one or more lights to be angled straight at the backdrop in addition to the lights on your subject, while for a black background, you need to make sure that your lights don't spill onto the background (the easiest way to do this is often to bring your subject and lights away from the backdrop). And once you've got your lighting right, make sure that your camera is set for a high/low enough exposure for white/black, not grey! Unless you want grey...
Faithfully reproduce what they can see
If you're using the modelling lamps correctly, the light should be falling in the right place and you should have a good idea of what your image will look like. However, if you want to photograph exactly what you can see (and there are plenty of times when you do), you don't even need the studio lights to fire - just grab a nice fast lens and shoot in aperture priority without the strobes flashing. If, on the other hand, you want to actually use the studio lights to make an image beyond what you could do with the ambient light, you should be setting the exposure on your camera correctly to bring about a much more dramatic picture.
Ask the model to "move about and stuff"
As the photographer, it's your job to pose the model. You know what image you are going for, you can see the whole scene, you can see how the light is falling on your subject – the model can't see any of this, so don't ask them to "move about and stuff" or "do a pose". Many models do know instinctively the position to get into and where the light is falling – and that's the mark of a great model and a good working relationship with the photographer – but it's still up to the photographer to direct the model. As a rule, models don't mind being directed – it's their job and they'd rather know exactly what you want rather than just hoping they find the right pose by chance. Also, it's a good idea to discuss how you – the photographer – work and direct. Some photographers like their model to move about and change poses, while personally I like my models to remain still until I tell them to move. Similarly, when altering positions, I'll be very clear about whether I want the model to move half an inch or to completely change position.
Focus on the face but forget the body
A portrait is all in the eyes... well, yes, but don't forget about what the rest of the body is doing! It's very easy to set your focus on the eyes and forget about the rest, particularly if you don't assess the position and lighting before you lift the camera to the eye. So check that the arms/legs/fingers/everything is in the right place before you click that button.
Move the model but not the lights
So we've spent 20 minutes setting up the lights, trying a few different things, experimenting with a couple of different poses, and then getting that absolutely killer shot. And then the photographer says, "Turn your head the other way now", and starts to shoot. Not surprisingly, the lighting isn't even close.
In some cases, the lighting is quite forgiving – for example, shooting in high key, there's loads of light and very little shadow, so moving your model's head will (probably) not be catastrophic. However, if you've spent some time to set up perfect Rembrandt lighting, for example, then the effect will be completely destroyed by only a small movement of the model. So, remember to alter the position and power of the lights when you move your model. If you've been paying attention so far and you're using the modelling lamps properly, you'll spot what's changed and where your lights need to move to before you even put your viewfinder up to your eye.
Rush a shot and assume that "okay" is good enough
Some lighting set-ups can be put together in seconds. More sophisticated or experimental set ups, however, may take a little time to get perfect. You're in a studio, everything is under your control, there's no excuse for settling for "good enough" unless it's perfect. Studio lighting takes a lot of practise, but that's half the fun, so keep on experimenting until you get it absolutely spot on.
Take ten identical shots
Okay, this won't actually ruin your shot, but it does mean that your photoshoot will run really slowly and may get boring for the model. It's also particularly infuriating during a workshop when other photographers are waiting their turn. It's a studio... the second shot will be identical to the first one, so you only need one. Get it right first time.
So those are the things that come straight to mind when I see inexperienced studio photographers shooting. Ask another professional photographer and they'd probably come up with a list of ten completely different things (oh hang on, there are 11 things on my list), but if you have the right kit, prepare properly and pay attention to what's happening in front of you, you'll always get great shots!