Creating a photographic style

March 05, 2012

At some point I am sure we all wished we had 'style'. I probably think about it once a week and my partner probably wishes I had style a few times a day. Anyhow, having style and creating a photographic style are two different things. If you are lucky you have both and the world is at your feet.

For our purposes I'm not going to worry about whether you have style but will concentrate on creating a style. One you are born with and the other you can develop. So, lets look at creating a style largely aimed at 'black tie' or social event photography. Whilst there is some opportunity to create a unique style for other types of event photography this is probably the genre which has the most opportunity to do this. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the genre in which individual styling is least applied. The primary reason for this is probably that Social Event photographers usually work under pressure and there is little time in the process to adjust lighting etc. for each couple or group being photographed.

As a social event photographer I will usually opt for the generic, tried and tested set ups and poses which work and which sell. This usually uses standard back drops, flat lighting, simple posing and easy processing. However, I don't need to change a lot to add an element of difference.

If we identify the elements that create the style of an image we can quickly see how we can change these elements to uniquely style our images. This in mind, lets look at these elements of style.

No backdrop, single colour (black, white etc.), standard mottled, lit backdrop, environmental (uses a feature of the venue), themed, green screen etc.

The choice of backdrop is probably the easiest starting point and will lead us naturally into how we light both the subject and the backdrop. Your photography can feature a specific type of back drop. For example you can use a grey backdrop and light one area with a gelled strobe with a snoot. The basic concept is then consistent throughout your images but the individual images can be posed to vary the effect of the coloured splash.

Soft lighting, harsh lighting, flat lighting, shadowed, sculpted, sharp fall off, separation light. Like backdrops we are spoilt for choice here. You can choose a painter style (Rembrandt lighting for example) or you can go flat (generally safe for events) or you can be a little less soft with the lights and make it your own. The number of lights, the size and type of light modifiers (bare bulb, umbrellas, softboxes etc) and the distance between subject and lights can be used to create a look which is different to the standard two lights at 30 to 45 degrees event set up. I regularly use a single large umbrella set about 20 degrees off centre. Big enough to give lots of even light but offset enough to create some light shadows on one side of the face.

There are as many poses as there are people. The standard poses have been developed over the years to cover singles, couples and groups. Yes, you can do something different but be sure that whatever you do is in keeping with your subjects tastes and expectations. Putting a wind machine on and having your subjects pose like they are head on into an Arctic gale is not likely to be popular with an elderly crowd at a black tie awards ceremony. Posing also opens up another variation which is where do the subjects look. They can look at the camera, at each other, into the distance, dreamily at some spot over the photographers shoulder etc. Wedding and fashion magazines can be a good source of inspiration for new poses. Don't be afraid to try something new or if you notice a look between a couple to recreate it.

A quick aside. Look at features which the subject will not want exaggerating (or even in the picture). A woman with wings under her arms is not going to thank you for shooting her side on with her arms draped over her partner and her wings swinging in the wind.

Close crop, wide crop, landscape, portrait, use of space. Whilst you can and will vary the crop significantly in event photography you can make a particular crop a feature of the image collection. Shooting or adding empty space in processing can create a very different look to an image.

The camera height and angle with respect to the subject will alter the perspective of the subject in the image. Feet will be smaller and heads bigger if shot with the subject looking up and the camera above head height and tilted down. This is the extreme but when you vary height and angle then you vary perspective. I usually try to shoot at a height relative to the subjects height. For children it does mean I kneel and then promise to diet as I get back up.

Focal Length
The choice of focal length should not be determined solely by how far away you are and how much you are trying to get into the image. We can take a close crop at 17mm and stand 4 feet away or move back and take the same shot at 50mm. In the 17mm shot the foremost facial features will be exaggerated and in the 50mm shot the features will look far more natural. We could take the same shot with a 300mm lens and compress the features. You can use focal length to manipulate perceived distance.

Depth of Field
Shallow, deep, face depth, eye only. Depth of field is one of those variables were it is easy to go for the safe option (set lights and camera to F8/F11 and stand 7 feet away) but can make a huge difference to the image and is not that difficult to adjust on the fly without having to adjust the lighting. When you set up your lights set the ISO on the camera to allow you to back off a couple of stops so you can go from F11 to F4 on the camera by just adjusting the aperture and ISO and not having to adjust the lights. This will allow you to do groups and selective focus single person shots quickly. Like the crop you can make a particular depth of field a feature of your photography and whilst it will not be a part of every image it can be dominant in the collection of images. Be careful with very shallow DOF as some will see the out of focus areas as a failure on your part.

Distance affects your Depth of Field and selection of focal length. Combine distance with crop, Aperture and Focal Length and you have a huge number of variations at your disposal.

Camera Rotation
Look for lead lines in groups and individuals. Lead lines will usually be formed by dress (a strong pattern or style) or pose. Rotate the camera to the line and shoot. The angle can be varied to make this bolder or weaker. Be careful though as it can make you look like you would not know a straight line even if you fell over one.

Sharpening, cropping, exposure, black level, grain etc. You can create an unlimited number of variations by adjusting these variable after capture. The style of processing you use is usually related to the lighting style. Hard lighting with strong sharpness and black levels is very different to soft lighting with no sharpening and a standard black level. A level of vignetting in post processing can be a subtle feature.

Colour White Balance
Warm, cold, creative. Colour White Balance can strongly affect the look of an image. In general for social event photography the colour balance should be set in camera and should be slightly warm. However, it is an element which you can change and changing it can be part of your style.

Colour or Black and White
A pretty fundamental one this one. You may choose to only print in B+W and make this part of your style. Not one to use at Proms unless you enjoy being beaten up by mothers.

You could add other elements but I hope I have covered the major ones here. Don't be afraid to try something different. A couple of small changes may well be enough to create enough of a difference without drawing any attention to exactly what is different.

Any variation of any one element has been done many millions of times over the years but put all the elements together and we have many millions of unique combinations and variations. Developing your own style can be an evolving process. You don't need to set a date and change all elements at once. Gradually change one or a selection of elements until you have a look you are happy with and that sells. Don't forget this is a business so having a unique look and style which identifies you is great but if no-one buys it then maybe that is not the style for you.

A parting thought. Style yourself. The most successful event photographers I know have something in common. Well groomed and well spoken. Remember that when you uniquely style your images the client is buying into you and your values and style. You are selling this concept from the moment they first set eyes on you and with the first words they hear.

Buying the latest Must Have equipment

October 28, 2011

As photographers we all have moments when the latest shiny new lens or camera is released and we read the reviews, check the specifications and look at the price. How much??? is my usual first reaction.

It is surprising how quickly we can adjust mentally from 'Nice to have' to 'Should have' to 'Must have'. We justify in our minds the usage benefits, the quality of images and the need to stay current.

As a business what we should be looking at is whether this shiny new addition to our camera bag will actually earn us money and will it increase our earnings over and above that produced by our current kit. The answer is usually no but that does not stop us popping the latest must have item into the on-line basket. Sitting on the screen when it could be sitting in the bag it is only a mouse click away. The 'Buy' button taunts us. Are you man enough to click me it seems to be saying.

We can offset part of the purchase by selling an older lens or camera. That is not too bad then. Actually it is probably good. It is not really a squillion pounds it is half that when we sell this other stuff. A bargain really.

The older camera or lens can be our new back up. The fact the current back up has not come out of the bag for 18 months is not really that important is it?

Don't do it. There you go. Decision made. Wait for the 'must have merchants' to upgrade their perfectly good kit and then wait a bit more. Eighteen months after a new body is released is a good time to look for its predecessor in the second hand market. Any issues will be known about and someone else will have taken the major part of the depreciation hit.

Lenses depreciate slower than bodies and wear out or age far slower as well. Unless it is a real bargain I tend to buy lenses new rather than second hand. New camera bodies are released every 12 to 18 months to replace the current model. Is your current camera on its last legs? If the answer is no and it is doing the job well enough then give it a little pet and thank it for saving you a lot of money and earning your living.

Spam and more spam

August 23, 2011

I probably get 5 or 6 of these things a day. Some offer me great riches for working at home, some offer me a chance to buy shares in a company that I have never heard of (and neither has the stock market), some want me to claim the fortune that someone bearing the same name left unclaimed and some just want be be a nice friendly bank and help me sort out a problem with my account.

You would think (some of the spammers obviously do not) that if you were going to try to catch out the average man in the street then you would at least construct a letter/email that had a level of credibility and looked like it was put together by someone who had got a passing grade at nursery school.

The following little extract is probably the worst I have seen in a while.

"The Technical Service of H****** online banking are upgrading
programmed the software to improve the quality 'of services
bank. We ask you to start the confirmation process data
Customer. For this purpose, and must download and unpack the form attached to this email and
open it in a web browser."

Anybody who falls for a scam as badly presented as this one probably does not have any money in a bank. Well, other than the cheques they pay in for some export/import company which has a minor problem with their bank account and has chosen them from a carefully vetted list to represent their company whilst they sort it out. Strangely enough these seem to be the same people that want to send you a cheque to buy a car, hire a photographer and anything else you can think of and then accidentally make the cheque out for a few thousand more than they should. After generously insisting you keep a few hundred for your trouble they then ask that you send the balance back using a wire transfer office before the cheque has cleared. Hmmm, lets think about it for a second. Someone sent you a piece of paper and you then send them your life savings.

I'm not saying I am above getting caught out by one of these as some of them are quite convincing. I really do hope that if I do fall for one of these that it is at least written and presented in a manner which would make most of us think it may be genuine.

Anyhow, got to dash, off to collect my winnings for a lottery I didn't even know I had entered.

EVS4 - Update

August 03, 2011

A general release of EVS4 has been delayed whilst a further option for the manner of release is considered. A decision will be made shortly (within the next few weeks).

EVS4 - Why I wrote my own Event Viewing System

July 05, 2011

There is a lot of debate amongst event photographers about the value of viewing systems. A viewing system is a system that allows potential purchasers to view images in which they feature before they purchase them. The simplest viewing system is a set of proof sheets tacked onto a board. This has some issues, a proof sheet has to be printed (time and cost considerations), a good gust of wind and your proof sheets are flying around the event and at a large event or an event with a large number of images they can take up a considerable amount of space.

For equestrian and dog event photographers viewing systems are essential. They can have many thousands of images and the participants expect to be able to find the images featuring their horse or dog reasonably quickly. If they cannot find them they leave the sales station and so do the pounds in their pockets. Photographers working larger 'black tie' events will hit the same wall. It is usually very inefficient to use the print station as a viewing station. The print station should be doing exactly that - churning out prints.

So, the solution is electronic viewing stations. Just display the images on a set of terminals and the user chooses the images they want to purchase and either pops them into an electronic basket or lets a sales assistant know the image numbers and the hard work of finding a clients images has been done by the client without tying up the print station.

There are numerous solutions but I found that for my use none actually did what I wanted in the way that I wanted so all I looked at were rejected. For myself, coming from a web development background, the obvious solution was to use a browser based solution and write the underlying code myself. A few refinements and about a year of use and further development and it is at version four. Hence EVS4, Event Viewing System Four.

This is currently being tried by a few selected users and will shortly be generally available to other photographers. Before you start thinking that this is very generous of me I should say that if you use it I want you to send me some money. Not a huge amount (you can if you want to send massive amounts of money) but enough to say thank you and that recognises the value the product has for your business. In the order of £15 (or the equivalent in Euros or Dollars) per viewing station would seem to be fair.

It is designed to be fast to update and easy to use both for clients and system operators. Web sized images and thumbnail images are dropped in a folder and the script automatically builds a page of these images. Just create a folder, drop in your images and select the folder from a list of galleries and view your images. Very fast to do, very easy to do and very easy to use.

What it does not do is create baskets and price lists. My experience is that sales are maximised by supervising viewing stations. Put a sales assistant with every three or four stations and not only do you add the personal touch but you also manage the sales process whilst ensuring people are moving on from the viewing stations to the print station.

The latest version is going out to selected users this week and I will have a link to the code/system available within the next week assuming all feedback is positive. To date the feedback from these users has been very positive so I think we can look forward to a release next week.

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