Hi, Kersten here. I’m a portrait photographer based on the outskirts of London, England, and co-host of the Camera Shake Photography Podcast. Now, you may not have heard of it but if you ARE one of our tens of listeners out there – it’s nice to meet you.
It comes as no surprise to most people that the last 18 months have been, to put it mildly, challenging. Over here in the UK we had to endure several total lockdowns, which meant that business as we know it went south and especially for us portrait photographers, life got a whole lot more complicated. Standing only a few feet opposite someone, taking their picture in a studio environment was not only frowned upon but outright illegal. Shock horror. For some of us that presented an opportunity; a chance to slow down, re-evaluate and get creative with a personal project or two.
For me, however, it meant total disruption of a project I had started in late 2019, the main subject of today’s blog: Three Heads in a Row.
Back then life seemed ‘ordinary’. In a world where global pandemics were largely limited to Sci-Fi B-movies and the idea of social distancing either made you a social outcast or just plain old weird, the need for personal projects was just as important. And so was people watching.
Remember when you could sit in a café, slurp an almond milk latte and watch the world go by? My personal favourite is street cafes. I love sitting and watching passers-by, listening to snippets of human conversations blended with environmental noises, witnessing seconds out of strangers’ lives. Now, you might think that makes a perfect target for street photography and I’m sure you’d be right. For me, I like to witness interactions. People interacting with other people, with objects, their possessions or surroundings – I’m always amazed by what these interactions reveal about a person. A friend of mine calls it ‘Sherlock Holmesing’.
It may just be the way my brain works but I love giving these strangers histories. I’d make up complete backstories explaining why this or that person was doing what they were doing in the place and at the time they were doing it. All of course from the safety of my vantage point huddled on a rusty old chair outside Baker Street station or whichever street café I’d find myself in that day.
So a couple of years ago, before the whole world went crazy and shaking hands wasn’t disapproved of as much as it is today, I decided that my website was in need of an overhaul. The about page specifically needed some love and attention and a new mugshot was just what the doctor ordered. The task was to create a self-portrait that conveyed my personality but didn’t seem too corporate, with a sense of relaxed and casual, yet undeniable professionalism. Huh. Easy, right?
After some consideration, I felt that what I needed was a sitting portrait. A year or so earlier I had come across a wooden oak board, a former shelf in a storage room. Its grain had been the source of much inspiration and I had used this plank of wood for many projects in the past. Thumbnails, still lives, flat lays – you name it. It had just the right amount of grit and ruggedness to photograph. In short, it made the perfect tabletop. A black pop-up background and some beauty lighting later, I was getting closer to the look I had in mind. Now, taking photos of yourself comes with a number of problems. One, you’ll need to remote control the shutter and a 2 seconds delay means you can hit the button and drop it like a hot potato, get in position and bang – the shot’s in the can. Next, some immediate feedback was required, which made tethering essential. Being able to see the images coming through in near-real-time made fine-tuning my poses a lot easier.
It all seemed to go well until I pressed the remote, got distracted and the camera fired, catching me by surprise in mid-move, hands flailing with a not-so-flattering deer in the headlights expression on my face. This wasn’t the Miles Davis cool I had imagined, but rather the depiction of a bumbling idiot, too dense to spell his name and utterly bewildered by his own reflection in the water.
I looked at it and…loved it.
This was, of course, a far cry from the profile picture I was trying to create but this absurdly comical mishap of a photograph had something, a certain innocence, and I was strangely drawn to it. How much fun would it be to subject other people to this complete and utter photographic ridicule? Well, as it turns out – a lot of fun!
And thus, a personal project was born. I thought of the typical Instagram grid layout and imagined three images per subject, all interacting with their favourite objects or belongings. We all own things that are dear to us, maybe for some sentimental reason or another or just because it exemplifies our character, personality or career choice. There’s a strange relationship between a person and their choice of object and the way they interact with it. It opens up another layer, tells a deeper story. Also, this would give me plenty of ammunition for conversation and a chance to get to know the subject a little better, essential when pushing the envelope toward the farcical, especially when you’re photographing people who are not used to being photographed or having a massive lens stuck in their face.
This in itself has, as of date, become my greatest challenge of all with this project. In order to push my subjects far enough to give me these larger than life, comical expressions I need to build up trust in a relatively short amount of time. That’s where the photographer’s ability to connect with the subject on a human level becomes essential and people skills are critical. This connection, the trust, is the fine line between success and total failure.
Now that we’ve covered the Why, let’s have a look at the technical.
The lighting setup is a basic two-light affair. The key light is in the typical beauty position, centred above the subject’s face. I use a 20in beauty dish with a white interior and a diffusion sock, although in the past I have used a square softbox and an octabox, too. My shooting space is dimensionally challenged, so I’ve settled on the beauty dish and the somewhat more contrasty look works well for me. I may on occasion revert back to an octabox, especially for subjects with particularly shiny heads, predominantly to control specular highlights on the skin. My studio strobe is an Interfit Badger Unleashed, a light I love and use for just about any studio and on-location work. It’s small, cuboid and yellow – and who doesn’t like a yellow strobe?
My background light is another Interfit Badger with a 7in reflector at a slight angle shooting up at a black pop-up backdrop. I position it roughly in the middle between the subject’s shoulder blades and the floor to create a vignette with a slight graduation on the backdrop. Getting the power right here is critical as I only want to illuminate the background slightly to create some separation of the subject from the background. This will blend in well with the grungy texture I apply to the background in post, but more about that later.
Since the key light is positioned above the subject there’s a need to bounce some light back under the chin and to brighten up the eyes. I find that a sheet of white foam board at a slight angle works great and unlike a silver reflector, just adds a subtle punch of light in just the right places.
Typically, I shoot this type of portrait with a 24-70mm lens on full-frame, around the 26-32mm mark. Not usually known as a standard portrait lens, this focal length with its gradual distortion at the wider end adds to the comical, cartoonish look. Although this is something you’d typically want to avoid in a straight-up portrait, it really creates the look in this case and injects a sense of heightened reality into the shot. As far as the aperture is concerned, I’m sitting around about f/7.1 as a starting point. The goal is to create enough depth of field between the front of whatever object is being handled and the back of the head. It’s important to keep this in mind because the type of object being used in conjunction with the pose struck will have an impact on the depth of field needed and therefore informs the f-stop used. For example, in the image below I had to create enough sharpness between the tip of the knife pointed at the camera with outstretched arms and the back of the head. In order to achieve this, I needed to go as far as f/18. Remember that shooting with intent is what governs the aperture.
Whilst getting it right in camera is generally desired and saves a ton of time in editing after the fact, it’s also a vastly limiting factor in realising your artistic vision. For ‘Three Heads in a Row’ it was obvious from the outset that creating the final look had as much to do with the choice of focal length, lighting, etc as it had with the post-production process. The final image is square, making it perfect for the Instagram platform, yet I shoot wider, in landscape, to give me cropping options later on. This also means that the background almost always needs cleaning up, getting backdrop stands or other undesirable clutter in the shot is almost inevitable. Once that’s done I create basic colour correction in Lightroom before heading over to Photoshop for compositing and more retouching work.
The lemon slice shot is a good example of this. I sketched out the overall idea and shot the backplate (me holding the knife) first. Since I knew where the lemon halves would be in the frame I shot them separately, on skewers, in the approximate position they would be in. Shooting components for composites in situ has the advantage that the light falling on these almost always looks very photorealistic and requires little adjustment afterwards. After all, the lemons were in the same place – just not at the same time. My daughter and I went to buy a truckload of lemons and turned a large proportion of those into slush. Whilst she threw this mixture of lemon pips, pulp and lemon juice in the air I shot several frames. Capturing this in-flight makes it look realistic, after all this is what would happen had I actually sliced this citrus fruit in mid-air, right? The resulting mess aside, it made for a splendid addition to the final shot.
Once the composite is complete I overlay a texture over the background to add some grit and grunginess. This texture is something I created out of a blend of concrete flooring and an icy window shot. And lastly, it’s back to Lightroom for some final touches.
Since this project is designed to be displayed in an Instagram gallery I create three images per subject and arrange them so they make some kind of logical sense (to me at least).
For a closer look at how I edited this, check out this video on YouTube in which I go through the entire process in detail.
So, I hope by now I’ve managed to convince you that personal projects at any time in your career are far from a waste of time. I’ll always remember a conversation I had with Joel Grimes in which he told me that for the last 50 years he made time for a personal project every week. With this much practice, it’s not surprising that he has been able to rise to the top of his craft. Every bit of knowledge gained, every problem solved, every minute spent has made him what he is today – a master of light and creative visionary with expert technical skill. Breaking down your creative limits one shot at a time can only make you a better photographer, greater visual communicator and an artist with a unique voice – your voice.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and please get in touch, I’d love to hear what you think.
About the Author
Kersten Luts is a commercial and corporate portrait and headshot photographer based near London, UK, as well as the co-host of the Camera Shake Photography Podcast, photography blogger and general nerd. You can find out more about him on his website, check out his podcast and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.