In this (unedited) photo, I broke the most famous compositional rule of photography by positioning Rita’s face right in the center of the frame (well, horizontally, at least). In the final version (see below), I cropped it to place both the primary and secondary points of interest (face and hand/hair, respectively) closer to the the rule-of-thirds points, but I still decided to share the original shot exactly how it came out of the camera, because I’m pretty pleased with the lighting, I love her expression (wistful, yet with just a hint of a smile), and I like the compositional triangle created by her shoulder as a third point of interest.
Still, the way her arm is positioned and framed, the viewer’s eyes might be led out of the frame, which is another good reason to crop this shot, but I figure the model’s face is striking enough that any wandering eyes won’t stray for too long.
This green dress is dynamite (or perhaps “kryptonite” is more accurate), and with the complimentary color contrast of the bright, red lipstick (Rita’s idea), I knew I wanted to go with glamourous lighting, which I’ll explain shortly.
Rita was both a wonderful model (in spite of her modest claims to the contrary) and an excellent “assistant,” coming up with lots of great ideas, but during this particular part of the shoot, we struggled with finding a pose that we liked, until I noticed her twirling her hair, which she does a lot.* I asked her to keep doing what she was doing, and we quickly rattled off several decent frames. In fact, I actually prefer the smiling shot you see above to the one at the top of the post, but she generally prefers shots of herself where she isn’t smiling, so I went with this one for the lead.
On to the more technical details: The key light was a monobloc on a light stand, up high and camera-left, in a softbox, which diffused and spread the light falling on Rita. I placed it as close to her as possible (just out of frame), which intensified the rate of light fall-off and increased the size of the light source relative to the subject, which further softened the transition from highlight to shadow.
I positioned a bare monobloc to scrape across the background wall at a sharp angle, adding some texture. The strobe was perched, somewhat precariously, on a short light stand camera-right and high up on a shelf.
I clamped a small speedlite to the same shelf, pointing back at Rita’s hair and left shoulder, where it functioned as a kicker/separation light, gelled with about a full cut of CTO to create a warm color cast.
There was a third monobloc in a softbox on a high light stand, set to low power, behind me to camera-right, pointed at the ceiling, giving just a touch of downward-falling fill light to open up the shadows slightly. I could have done the same thing with the on-camera speedlite, but I decided to use the plugged-in monobloc instead since it was handy, and also to conserve the batteries of the speedlite, which I set to about 1/32: just bright enough to set off the optical triggers of the monoblocs, but not enough to affect exposure.
There would have been more texture in the background if I had: A) put a grid on the strobe (forgot it at home), B) moved Rita further away from the backdrop (not really enough space) or C) flagged off the other lights so they wouldn’t hit the wall (too lazy). Regardless, while more background texture might have looked cool, for this particular shot I wanted some background blur anyway, and so getting sharp shadows on the background wasn’t a huge priority for me.
I also wanted to keep both of her eyes in focus without stressing too much about it, so I shot at f/8, a mid-range aperture that allows some background blur when shooting at this distance with a telephoto lens, but allows enough depth-of-field to provide leeway when using the center focus point and recomposing.
Using the monoblocs mandated shooting manually (no ETTL), and so to kill the ambient light I had to hover at the very edge of my camera’s high-speed sync (1/200th of a second, and sometimes 1/160th), which sometimes leave a dark band along the bottom of the frame when shooting in landscape orientation, but luckily it’s barely noticeable here and not unpleasant.
Ambient/available light is sometimes all you need, and sometimes it’s a wonderfully helpful supplement to the light you create, but in this case, it didn’t suit either of those roles. The mix of tungsten and fluorescent ambient lighting was too low to shoot at the exposure settings I wanted, and trying to gel all of the strobes to match the varying degrees of color cast would have been a massive pain, so I went with pure flash this time.
Granted, carting a bunch of heavy lights around is also a massive pain, but for me the sore back and shoulders is (generally) outweighed by having the flexibility to get the job done in any situation without being totally at the mercy of what the sun/interior-lighting does. While I’m sure I could’ve gotten something usable or even good if I had brought less gear, and in many circumstances, having the time and space to set up a lot of lighting is simply impossible, sometimes it’s nice to have all the tools as you own at your disposal to get the look you want.
But it’s still not as important as having something or someone interesting to put in front of the camera: thanks to Rita for being such a fantastic model (and assistant). Here’s the final version of this shot (It’s cropped and darkened a bit, and there’s some retouching, at her request):
* Remember earlier, when I mentioned that Rita twirls her hair a lot? I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I realized just now, having nearly completed this post, that Rita has her hand in her hair in every single photo here. I’m curious to know if you noticed it before I mentioned it, so please let me know in the comments. I’m not sure if that’s just because Rita does it all the time, or because I directed her that way, or because I ended up selecting these shots when editing because it’s a good, natural pose for her. I suspect it’s some combination of all of the above. Regardless, I just now got a lesson that I need to pay some attention to getting more creative with the posing of the subject, and avoiding repetition. No matter how comfortable and natural a pose feels, you can get too much of a good thing.