Monday, July 12, 2010

The 5 Dollar Studio

 “Wow!  That camera of yours takes great pictures!” said Howard, after seeing the professional-quality portrait I had just taken of him using only one flash and 5 dollars worth of white cloth.  Of course he was kidding; he was making a reference to something I had said in Day 1 of the seminar, saying that if you ever want to get punched out by a photographer, just say to them “Wow, those are great pictures!  What kind of camera do you have?”

This was at the end of Day 2 of the Orlando seminar, just after everyone had gone home, and I had agreed to use the MacGyver-esque wireless flash technique I had demonstrated on Day 1 to take a high-quality portrait of a very special seminar attendee, Howard Herman, the guy who taught me to play Jazz piano in my youth, and still one of the best piano players in Florida.  Howard, of course, was the kind of person who always felt much more comfortable behind a keyboard than in front of a camera, and so the assignment had become a double challenge: Get the light right AND get the subject comfortable, relaxed and natural.  

The lighting part was relatively straightforward (see photo above): I used one Minolta 5600 flash (seen being handheldheld on the left by Volunteer #1), and 1 piece of white cloth (being held by Volunteer #2) in front of it to act as a diffuser and soften the shadows.  Another piece of white cloth was held on the other side of the subject by Volunteer #3 (seen on the right); this reflected some of the light back to brighten the dark side of the face, yielding about a 1:2 (maybe 1:3) lighting ratio – a pleasing ratio for portraits.  No expensive studio equipment was used – I tried to get the point across in the seminar that you don’t need to spend a lot of money in order to get GREAT results using wireless flash. 

The camera was the Sony A550 and I used the Minolta 80-200 f/2.8 G lens.  And for arrogance everything was set to AUTO mode.  The result you see at the top of this blog (click on it to see a larger version) was not post-processed at all – this is the .jpg taken directly from the camera.  I keep telling people that wireless flash is the best invention since sliced bread!

But how to get the subject comfortable?  After all, many a photographer had tried to do this before me, often taking an entire afternoon and hundreds of shots, all to no avail.  (See some previous head shots he had taken appear below).

I used every trick I knew: I had him use the “Relaxed” Burt-Bachrach-type pose; I had him tell a joke, I ran back and forth periodically to provide feedback (show him what I was getting and telling him what I liked and didn’t like).  The trick was to try to get him to stop trying to pose for the camera and just pretend he was sitting there with friends.  Had this not been a conference center I probably would have given him some wine, put the camera down and just talk with him a bit to loosen him up a little more.

But it turns out that wine wasn’t necessary.  30 shots into the session, I got what I wanted.  He said that’s the best portrait anyone had ever taken of him in decades, and he couldn’t believe how quickly I was able to do it.  (And without a studio!)   

More on how I set up the shot

Fortunately in the age of digital, setting up the lighting can be a trial-and-error process.  So the first thing I did was start with a flash and a white cloth:

Not a bad start, but the dark side of the face is too dark, and the edge of the shadow was a little too harsh for what I wanted.  So I increased the distance between the flash and the diffuser (softening the shadow), and then asked his wife to hold up a 2nd white cloth on the other side of him to provide some fill light:

Much better!  Now to get Howard to appear natural and relaxed:

That’s the ticket!

Nova Scotia seminars are open for enrollment!


  1. That is amazing. I've gotta catch one of your seminars one of these days.

  2. You've revealed the secret sauce! There's no secret sauce. Just plain, smart artistry. Thanks for not hoarding your great idea.

  3. very nice and basic thanks for the tips

  4. Brilliant! I'm new to photography so this is extremely helpful to us newbies (with limited cash flow)! When are you coming to the Detroit area for a seminar?

  5. Thanks Gary. I will try this on my teenage grandchildren. One at a time will give me a couple of volunteers, I can put the flash on a tripod or other support.

    Frank Emery

  6. Thanks to you all for the kind words! I'm glad you're finding these ideas helpful.

    @Carna, regarding Detroit, there hasn't been much of a demand for it up there, but if you know of a photo club in the area, maybe they could help hasten a seminar your way.


  7. The K I S S principle always works for me - great results and well explained.

    Off to go and try this out!


  8. I attended that seminar. Honestly, it helped me relax so much about my photography. You can spend too much time on forums watching beatiful pictures ripped apart by people that insist they know what they are doing. It made me second-guess my skills a lot.

    After the second day I realized I do have a pretty good handle on things and I don't need to buy a bunch of stuff but rather focus on my composition and lighting.

    Thanks so much Gary. I highly recommend your seminar not just to beginners but to those that are lost in the forums, trying to figure out what they need to do to get "the shot".

    Keep it simple and look for the light.

    Elaine M.

  9. Ealine that was a nice read i have gotten caught up in the forums and some pictures ripped apart where others thought it was brilliant and it definaly makes you doubt yourself

  10. Gary, Great technique. Very similar to one that was taught to me by Evelyn R. Zeek, FPSA about 1980.The best ways are often recycled and/or rediscovered by trying new things that work. No charts or diagrams are used, just the "photographer's eye" . Highlights and shadows on the face are controlled visually, because there are no two faces alike. Please keep giving us suggestions like this. Bill

  11. YOur story telling is brilliant and goes along with your brilliant photography. Good job, Gary!

    -Sheila Clapkin

  12. This was a very educating article about how easy it really can be if you keep your mind shielded from all those who claims that portrait photography is very difficult, and just demands a big studio with a lot of flashing equipment.

    I participated in a seminar held at a school in Holte, Denmark, and You have made me think of it all at a much more simple way.

    Thanks a lot Gary

  13. Good stuff Gary! I always enjoy reading your "trick tips" :-)

  14. Keep up the great work Gary, and excellent photos. You are truly talented.

  15. Excellent Gary! Very nice and easely explained. It works! Have your wonderfull books for all my camera's.

  16. Awesome concept Gary... I'm spreading the word all about town...


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