Environmental Portraiture: Meter for the Background First

I’m endeavoring to build my portfolio of “corporate portraits”: photographs of people in their workplace environment. So far, I’ve not yet had an opportunity actually shoot in a true corporate setting, but I’ve taken a few images of folks in their workplace that I’m pretty happy with.

Our church has a beautifully lit, simple cross at the front of the sanctuary. I wanted to photograph Pastor Craig in the sanctuary and feature the cross as a key background element.

Typically, flash portraiture in this type of setting would have rendered a very dark background…probably to the extent that the cross, which is about 75 feet behind Pastor Craig, would have been lost. However, following my standard operating procedure, I metered for the cross first, and determined that at ISO 200, a shutter speed of 1/40s was just enough to give me a beautiful, ambient glow. I added a Nikon SB-800 with a shoot thru umbrella (my favorite location lighting rig) to light Pastor Craig. Starting at about 1/4 power, I made a test shot, and then and made a quick adjustment on the flash power to nail the final balance of ambient and flash.

This is Jon, our cameraman / video editor. As you can imagine, our edit bay is lit like a cave, and I wanted to maintain that ambiance in the finished portrait. I didn’t want to flood the room with light, but I needed enough controlled light to provide detail of the environment and separate Jon and the computer monitors from the background.

I wanted to retain some detail in the LCD monitors, so my first step was to to meter for the main display, and underexpose it a little to retain detail and saturation. I then added the key light: a single Nikon SB-800 Speedlight with a ¼ Honl speed grid (to confine the light primarily to the head and shoulders) on a stand to camera left and slightly above Jon’s eyeline. A second gridded SB-800 behind his head provides enough rim lighting to separate him from the background without flooding the room with light. A third SB-800 with a blue gel, positioned behind the computer monitor and aimed at the wall provided separation for the monitors without destroying the aforementioned low ambient lighting of the edit bay. Without that backlight, the monitors would have simply blended into the wall.

Daniel and his twin brother, Michael, graduated from Annapolis last year. I was able to gain access to a local military base and photograph them while they were home for a couple weeks between graduation and heading off to flight school. We chose the helicopter maintenance hangar which was beautifully illuminated with late afternoon sun streaming through an entire wall of windows.

Shooting with such strong backlighting of course called for strong “front lighting”, in this case, provided by a Calumet Travelite monoblock with a 2X3 softbox. As is my usual procedure for environmental portraiture, I metered for the background (the wall of windows), and chose a shutter speed / aperture combination that underexposed the background a bit so as to retain some of the color and detail. I then dialed in the strobe output until I had the desired balance of ambient and strobe, checking my histogram along the way to be sure I wasn’t blowing out any important highlights. After positioning the strobe, settling on the exposure took less than a minute, and 2 or 3 test shots.

I’m always looking for unique opportunities for workplace portraiture. I have a friend who crafts beautifully-carved gourds in his home workshop. Can’t wait to make HIS portrait!

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