FRIDAY SURPRISE: A fast portrait under less-than-ideal conditions.

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As I mentioned recently, I attended SHOT Show 2013 in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. The Thursday of the Show was spent shooting pictures for a new book by Gila Hayes, all about concealed carry for women. It’s going to be published by Gun Digest Books this summer, and if it’s even half as good as her last book (Personal Defense For Women) it’ll be terrific. Gila really knows her subject and is incredibly thorough; it will no doubt immediately go on my “highly recommended” defensive book list!

This post, however, is about the photography for the book. Shooting at a trade show is difficult at best, made so by a combination of spotty illumination, mixed lighting types, and crowds of people. The Sands Convention Center has always been one of the worst venues for photography; on the main floor the lighting is very high and insufficient, requiring each booth to supply its own illumination, while on the lower level the lighting is brighter but an ugly combination of sodium vapor point sources and commercial fluorescents.

Normally I’d simply bring my light with me in the form of portable flashes (speedlights.) That was an issue in this case, however, because they require infrastructure: since there were no convenient walls or low ceilings to use as reflective sources, I would have needed to bring along light modifiers (softboxes or octaboxes) which require stands for support. That’s a lot of gear to be toting around all day, but the biggest issue was the disruption the equipment would have made in the booths we were visiting. We needed to get in, get our shots, and get out with the least amount of interference to the exhibitors and attendees as possible. We’d be doing this dozens of times over the course of the day, making for a whole lot of setup and tear-down!

Had we been shooting in just a couple of locations I’d have brought the lighting anyhow, but that wasn’t the case: we would be traversing the entirety of both floors in what would become a very long day. Moving all that gear (not to mention spare batteries for everything) just wasn’t an exciting option without Sherpas, and Vegas is noticeably light on Sherpas. The bottom line was that everything would, by necessity, be shot in available light. The light was all overhead and very ugly, so to get usable pictures a little ingenuity would be in order.

The first issue was that of camera support. I’d determined that a tripod would not be suitable for use in the booths, for the same reasons light stands wouldn’t. I ended up shooting everything with a full-frame Sony a850 on an old Gitzo monopod and Leitz ballhead. (How old? The monopod is probably 20 years old, and the ballhead is prewar. Yes, that would be World War II. Both still work fine and look great even with a modern digital camera attached to them!) Thankfully Sony has image stabilization built into their bodies, which means it works with any lens that you can fit on the camera. That came in handy over the course of the day.

This shot of Lisa Looper, the inventor of the FlashBang bra holster, is a good example of what we were up against:

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There is a sodium vapor light fixture on the ceiling above her and slightly to camera right; there’s another well behind her and ever so slightly to camera left. There were a couple of dimmer fluorescents behind the camera.

Normally those point light sources would cast ugly shadows under the eyes and chin. If I’d had flash gear that wouldn’t be a problem, but I didn’t – so I used the next best thing: a reflector. In years past I carried around a white vinyl roll-up shade to use as a reflector, and I’ve also been known to use silver-colored automobile window shields. In recent years, however, I’ve become a fan of the circular collapsible reflector/diffuser combinations. Unfolded they’re about 30″ in diameter, and collapse down to about 12″ in diameter – small enough to stuff in the back pocket of my camera bag.

In Lisa’s case I set the reflector at about torso level, angled toward her face and just out of camera view at the left. This bounced quite a bit of light back into her face to act as a fill for what would have been some nasty shadows. Careful positioning allowed the main light to make a nice key on her hair and shoulder. The other ceiling light to the rear was carefully framed to act as a hair light to give some separation to the top-right side of her head. (It also produced just a bit of flare, which reduced the contrast of the image a tad. That wasn’t intentional, but it worked out.)

I had her hold the belt to reflect the light from the fluorescents behind me; that, coupled with the fill from the reflector, made very nice highlights on the pewter buckle.

The mix of light sources meant some color issues. The predominant color was the yellow/green sodium vapor, which I corrected for in Aperture. (I shoot everything raw so that color balance is easily dealt with in the computer.) Her light beige top shows color casts far more than pure white would, making color correction a delicate operation. There’s still some slight color mismatch where the different lights hit, and the discontinuous sources mean a truncated color palette even with perfect white balance, but overall it’s acceptable given the conditions under which it was made.

Of course I could always go into PhotoShop and correct those portions of the image that are slightly off, but since this will probably be reproduced in black-and-white I’m not going to bother. The best way to approach a shot like this is to use flashes gelled to the color of the predominant light source, expose for the desired background detail and adjust the flash intensity to bring the subject to the desired density. Once that’s done it’s an easy task to apply one white balance correction to the whole thing to make it all match. Too bad I couldn’t do that!

Elapsed time for this setup, testing and the half-dozen frames we shot was about three minutes. (We did some other setups with her as well, including a couple of sequences of her drawing from a bra holster, so we were at her booth for 15 or 20 minutes and a total of 73 frames.) Of course during that time people were moving in and out of her booth, and several shots were ruined by people sticking their noses into the frame!

Lisa, however, was completely unfazed by the commotion. She’s got a great personality and is incredibly easy to photograph, which is really what makes this picture work!

-=[ Grant ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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