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Family Photo Affair: Neat Clix for Biz Pix

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

A few weeks ago, sandwiched in between a slew of wedding and other commercial work, Judy and I found ourselves doing a lot of photography for ourselves and for our family. Though this work didn't earn us a dime, it was a welcome change of pace and allowed us to play a little bit and get some first rate promo pix in the bargain.

There actually were three separate shoots during the week in question and each utilized different techniques and lighting. There was an informal location shoot to capture a few moments for a website, a much more formal portrait shoot to launch a new company, as well as a tabletop "product" shot to highlight one of Judy's sculptures.

One of the nicest things about being a freelance – be it a photographer, a writer, a carpenter or even a surgeon (when you think about it, they are freelances too) is that you rarely get into a rut. That's why Judy and I would never limit ourselves only to our wedding work, lucrative though that may be. We never could have lasted the 20-plus years that we have been shooting weddings if that were the only thing we did.

We'd have gone nuts.

So it was easy to say yes when Judy's sons Bill and Dan called with their respective "photo needs." And just as easy to do the actual work.

In Bill's case, he and his wife Rosa have their own mobile pet grooming business, featuring a custom-designed truck that is a pet beauty salon on wheels. Equipped with its own bathing and grooming facilities – even its own huge water tank – Rosa's Mobile Pet Grooming shows up at the door of its DC and Maryland-area clients and helps turn Fluffy or Spike into a thing of beauty.

As so often is the case these days, especially with small businesses, Bill was anxious to expand his client base through a website and therefore needed pictures documenting the way he and Rosa work.

Since this was to be a location job – and since of necessity it had to be shot inside their truck – there was no way for us to set up studio lights. But this was no problem since over the years we have perfected what I think is a terrific portable lighting kit: the same one we use for weddings and events.

I shot this job totally handheld, using a Fuji Finepix S2 digital camera on a Stroboframe flash bracket. The flash itself was my trusty custom Vivitar 283, modified with a Lumedyne strobe head. The flash head gives me far more firepower than a regular 283 – and more important, allows me to modify the setup even more with a Norman 2D diffusion reflector to soften the light.

The flash bracket's main function is to raise the strobe a good foot above the camera, which in turn helps channel shadows from the flash behind and away from the subject. [Raising the strobe this way also guarantees that you never will be bothered by "red eye," the phenomenon that occurs when flash fired directly literally lights up the blood vessels on a subject's retinas, giving the subject a weird, vampirish look].

Among the shots Bill and Rosa needed was one showing the two of them working together grooming a dog (in this case, their own big guy, Lou). Since I was working fairly close, I knew that my flash would freeze motion, allowing me to shoot at a slower shutter speed to bring up the ambient lighting behind them in the truck. But as important, I had the big doors at the back of the truck wide open so I could have daylight wash over me from behind and onto my subjects. The result was a nice mix of strobelight and daylight. Less technical but every bit as important: this was to be a promo shot and therefore everyone had to look happy and engaged. Bill and Rosa did fine. Hell, even Lou was smiling.

Dan's need was for something more formal, and this required a fairly involved location shoot using much more lighting gear. Still, one of the best shots we got this day was made totally by available light. The lesson here is to be ready for anything and if perfect conditions present themselves, don't let yourself be boxed in by your own preconceptions. [Note: this can be a tough lesson to learn. I am not great at it myself, usually because I have given so much thought beforehand to how I plan to light a particular shot and therefore tend to be rigid about changing things. Judy is much better at thinking outside the box – which is why we're such a good team.]

In Dan's case, we had to make a formal portrait of four people: Dan and his three partners in the soon-to-be-launched technology transfer company, "Brainchild." The company has garnered key early backing from the state of Maryland and the principals wanted to have a decent photo for press and promotion purposes – as well as for their website.

The location for the shoot was a country club near Catonsville, Maryland and Judy and I packed the car with lots of lighting gear, including two powerful studio strobe monolights and two other, smaller, White Lightning "coffee can" strobes for use as fill lights. In addition, we had the usual assortment of light modifiers, light stands, reflectors and tripod.

To cover all our bases, Judy suggested both a formal and less formal picture. The less formal one, which we made first (but only after we had set the lights for the formal picture) was made on a shaded terrace. The open shade provided a flattering even light, while the trees beyond the terrace gave us a nice dark background.

Because there also was measurable back-lighting here, precise metering was essential for this shot. So I used a Minolta spotmeter to read the faces and made that my exposure guide. Here was one case where shooting at least part of the job digitally was a help because I could gauge the available light exposure without having to pull Polaroids. We shot this pose a couple of different ways, with different people sitting and standing, then moved into the meeting room for the more formal shot.

Though I had worked totally digital for Bill and Rosa's shot – they needed stuff for their website and so a CD of digital images filled the bill – I wanted to do the Brainchild job on film as well. Why? Well, frankly, because I wanted to.

Actually, just a digital take probably would have been fine – the quality of digital prints one can get these days from high-end custom labs (and even from some of the better chains) is remarkable, especially when the prints are made on photographic paper.

But, for the formal shot especially, I wanted to shoot square – and that meant, for me anyway, shooting film with my Hasselblad. Though the vertical digital shot shown here is fine, frankly I like the square format version better.

Lighting was "formal" too, but in reality nothing all that extraordinary. The mainlight was from camera left: a White Lightning Ultra studio strobe shot through a 3'x 4' softbox to approximate window light. To fill in the shadows on the right, but not enough to make the picture look evenly lit and boring, I used a smaller WL "coffee can" strobe fired through a shoot-through umbrella. Film was Kodak Portra 160.

Finally, something completely different. My wife also is a sculptor and regularly needs slides of her work for exhibitions. This piece was one we had shot in the past, but neither of us cared much for the results. The lighting was too even in the old shots, the vantage point mundane. This time, we opted for a stroblight outfitted with a light-channeling grid spot – a waffle-like metal "filter" that fits over the strobe reflector and directs the flash to a precise, smaller area.

Using only that one light, we were able to create a very dramatic image that finally seemed to capture Judy's artwork.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Goodman/Van Riper
Shooting for Bill and Rosa's upcoming website, I worked as if I were shooting an event or a wedding: with a bracket-mounted camera and one diffused flash. A reasonably slow shutter speed (1/30th of a second, appx.) allowed me to register the interior of the truck. As important, it also let me ride the ambient daylight that came from the truck's open doors behind me. For pix like these, you want to have everyone looking happy – even the dog.

©Goodman/Van Riper
Giving equal time to son #2, Judy and I made the formal portrait to launch Dan's new venture – the technology transfer company "Brainchild," which has major backing from the state of Maryland – and which therefore will need a primo publicity pic of Dan and his partners. This shot, made outdoors on a shaded terrace at a country club, was shot totally by available light, with careful spot-metering to render maximum detail of the people.

©Goodman/Van Riper
To give all concerned another choice – as well as to have a more formal portrait should the need arise – we then shot this pic in one of the club's wood-paneled meeting rooms. Here the lighting was much more controlled: a 3'x4' softbox at camera left provided the main light from a powerful studio strobe, while a weaker light, in a shoot-through umbrella, filled in shadow slightly on the right.

©Goodman/Van Riper
Now, for something completely different. We tried for a dramatic detail on one of Judy's sculptures, and lighting from a grid spot was just the ticket. The polar opposite of a softbox, a grid spot concentrates direct light onto a subject. Note how the falloff from the light creates a pleasing dark background at the right of the frame, forcing the eye to the artwork.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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