Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How I took these Pregnancy Shots (and other stories)

I’m writing this blog post from Boston, where we’re expecting the arrival of Grandchild #3.  And of course we expect to take family portraits immediately afterward, so I packed a very portable studio with me (which I’ll detail below).

And of course we took a few token full pregnancy shots, but I really wanted to do something a little different.  Like the shot above, which I had never tried before.  And it took me a few tries to get it right.  Here are all of my mistakes in getting there, in glorious color. 

First I tried just putting a flash on a bookshelf and have it point to behind the subject.  The shot below is the result.

What happened?  The flash is going out in all directions, way more than what I need.  At first I thought there was too much stuff around the flash, so we moved it to the hallway and I had my wife hold the flash behind my pregnant subject:
Not much better!  I need to somehow narrow the beam more than just setting the flash’s zoom to 70mm.  Normally I’d just wrap some construction paper around the flash as I’ve done before, but this time I used a speed grid similar to the kind sold by David Honl, except this one was homemade using a collection of cut straws, made by Lumodi beauty dish president Brandon Cruz.  (I now carry these in my camera bag.)  

This effectively narrows the beam so that the edges of the beam just touched the outside of her head:

Progress!  Okay, so that’s the head.  But I want the body as well.  Fortunately I brought with me a 2nd flash and a 2nd grid.  (Doesn’t everyone carry these in their camera bag? :-) )

Even better!  The beam is so narrow, though, that it's only skimming the subject's front but not her back.  And here I had a choice: I could continue to try people’s patience by experimenting with flash placement and distance (to widen the beam to cover both the front and back), or I could use a shortcut and move the bottom flash so its light skimmed only her back, and then merge the pictures in Photoshop, deepening the blacks in the process.  That’s the path I chose.  The back shot and then the final shot are shown below.  (As always, you can click on any of these images to see a larger view).

Gratuitous stats: A55, Zeiss 16-80, 1/160, f/4.5, ISO 100.

My Portable Studio Parts List

As promised, here’s what I carry with me when I have to travel light and still get winning results.  Please remember you can travel even lighter and spend even less money by using human light and diffuser stands as described in my blog on the 5 dollar studio.
  • A portable Tripod
  • Black cloth as a backdrop
  • An Umbrella reflector from Midwest Photo which collapses down to 15" (I chose a reflector umbrella rather than a shoot-through to make sure that 100% of the light from the flash ends up on the subject.  Handheld flashes are inherently weak and so I prefer to utilize all of their output.)
  • Umbrella Swivel hardware
  • Minolta 5600 Flash (although you could use ANY wireless flash)
  • Minolta Off-camera shoe OS-1100 just to physically mount the flash

Careful placement of only one diffuse light source (in this case, to the right and pointing to the subject's face) can really add drama to your pictures!

Two New Ebooks Now Available!
  1. The Sony Alpha 560 / 580 DSLRs: Tony Phillips (the book's co-author) and I have been working overtime to bring this timeless classic to you just in time for your New Year's reading.  :-) You can read more (and even purchase a copy, if you're so inclined) here: http://www.friedmanarchives.com/alpha580/index.htm
  2. The Spanish version of the NEX 3 and NEX 5 book is now available too!  http://friedmanarchives.com/NEX-3-5/SP-NEX5-index.htm
 Please help spread the word!  

The A33 / A55 ebook continues to take forever, but at least this month I have 0.2% fewer distractions.  Expect it to be finished in another three to six weeks 

Three Seminars now open for registration - and a question.
Seminar season is in full swing.  I started giving these seminars because I felt that too many people were buying into the common online wisdom that you have to master your camera's myriad obscure technical features in order to take pictures that make people say, "Wow!".  Having grown up shooting Kodachrome (sniff!), I know better. 

With Kodachrome, there was no such thing as post-processing.  You either had good light or you didn't.  You either had a compelling composition or you didn't.  And it turns out that the secrets that went into taking "Wow!" shots in Kodachrome can apply to today's cameras - even point-and-shoots - all without taking your camera off of AUTO mode.

Am I saying that all of your camera's features are unimportant?  No!  Just that they are far less important than good light and composition - things that nobody talks about anymore.  And so the seminars were designed to balance out just what's important, and give a very intuitive understanding of the technical stuff as well.  Many, many people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences have said that the seminars have not only taught them something new, but have also re-invigorated their creativity.  THIS is what's important in photography!

The next seminar is being held in just a few days (!) in San Diego, California (this is the closest we'll get to Los Angeles this year), and two others - Northern California and Nashville - are now open for registration.  Give yourself a gift that you'll thank yourself for even 30 years from now!  The schedule and signup pages for 2011 can be found at http://friedmanarchives.com/seminars

And now for the question... In October we're going to be doing a seminar in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The dates were designed to coincide with the annual balloon festival, which my wife and I have been wanting to shoot for many years.  We plan to drive there, and on the way hopefully revisit the Antelope Slot Canyon in Arizona that I visited in 2009 (but this time I won't be dropping my A900 and Zeiss lens :-) ).   

Anyway, to get the best shots it is often worthwhile to pay the extra money and hire a guide who understands the unique needs of photographers - they know the right time of day when the light is best, they have the authority to keep the other tourists out of your shot when you need to, and in general they're extremely helpful.  Would anyone be interested in joining me for such a shoot?  Price would depend upon how many people sign up, but it's really a beautiful place to shoot and you'll have access to me in real time.  The dates would probably be around September 26 or 27th.  Drop me an email and let me know!

Life Lessons from Henry Winkler

I never met Henry Winkler.  And I’m quite sure he’s never heard of me.  But his actions 20 years ago made a huge impression on me, and this important lesson has become the cornerstone of my business.

Henry Winkler is a producer, director, writer and actor, and is perhaps best known for playing “Fonzie” in the American TV show “Happy Days” back in the 1970’s.  But he’s also known as being one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people in Hollywood. 

Back in the 1980’s I was a photographer / photohistorian for a children’s performing ensemble called “A Show Of Hands” which mixed sign language with singing and dancing.  (It was quite cutting edge for its time!).  Anyway, the organizers of the group were always planning events and benefits and always inviting many popular actors of the day to participate.  And nearly all of those requests would always be answered with silence.  Not even a “No, thanks” or “Sorry”.  Actors’ agents were just too busy and this group was perceived as being too small and unimportant.

The one exception to this was Henry Winkler, who personally called the organizers to thank them for the invitation, but had to decline and then he proceeded to explain WHY he couldn’t participate.  The call only lasted a few minutes, and the end result was no different from all the non-responses received from the other actors… but what an impact Henry’s call had made!  Nobody ever does that.

It didn’t cost him any money.  Just a few minutes of his time.  But this tiny investment yielded him a significant return in terms of reputation and Karma.  “Henry Winkler called us personally to decline!” said the group’s organizer, with an amount of glee in his voice.  Suddenly, completely immeasurable traits such as character, trustworthiness, credibility, and down-to-earthness had shot up in value.  I defy anybody to show me any monetary investment whose ROI is even a tenth of that.

Years later I thought about this one phone call, and the tremendous impact Henry’s personal attention had on those who communicated with him.  Just a quick, personalized response can have such a disproportionally huge impact in this increasingly depersonalized world.  It is for this reason that I always take care to provide a personalized response to every email or facebook post that comes in, even if it means staying up until 2:00 AM just to catch up.  I remember how it felt when Henry Winkler gave us the time of day, and I believe my customers deserve this kind of personalized treatment as well.  And if I ever get so many fans that I’ll have to hire someone to handle my email, I’ll be sure to instill this very fundamental value in them. 

Until Next time,

Yours Truly,
Gary Friedman

Did I mention that three of the seminars are open for registration? :-)  http://www.FriedmanArchives.com/seminars


  1. Keith I (the NASA guy)January 11, 2011 at 6:26 PM

    Great timing for this blog post! My wife is four months pregnant and I cannot wait to start practicing this! I should be able to get decent in 5 months. Thanks again and keep up the great work.

  2. Gary,

    brilliant as always! I just wrote down a short shopping list of what I need for a small portable studio set:

    - black cloth
    - umbrella
    - swivel hardware

    Greetings from Cologne, Germany

    P.S.: Hope it will not take that long with A55 eBook, because I just bought one.

    P.P.S.: When writing the book, could you have an eye on the flash delay discussed in the internet?

  3. Dear Gary
    Again as always good learning technics for all of us beginners.
    Your friend from Denmark
    Jacob La Cour

  4. Glad you all found the post useful.

    Someone asked me if I used one of those expensive backdrops for my portable studio. Actually, I just used a black king-sized bedsheet, which we got on sale for about $10.

    @Jörg - What exactly do you want me to say about the flash delay on the A55, other than it exists? That there's no way around it? That it sucks when you're shooting 2-year-olds and so I switch to my A900 for this purpose? :-)

  5. Gary,
    I am continually astounded by your teaching/learning blogs and I am thrilled when I have a Gary Friedman email waiting to be read, or shall I say digested. I am so pleased to say THANK YOU!

  6. Gary,
    I do not want you to say anything about it. But I think it would be a good idea to mention it in the book for those not aware of it and to have an eye on the discussion just in case there will be a firmware fix to solve it or to enable a work around other than manual settings.


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