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Q&A: "Why Does This Look Bad?"

That's what reader Arjen P van de Merwe asks, from Malawi in southeast Africa.

My first thought: Arjen, you are being too hard on yourself. A lot of people would have been quite happy with that photo. It's easy to forget how far you have come—and how fast—with respect to lighting, etc.

You definitely made some good calls, and there are some additional opportunities you could taken advantage of if you wanted to. Let's talk about both, as many of your fellow readers have something to learn from each.

First off, I hate the idea of critiques. I think they are presumptuous and depend on the notion that there is right and wrong involved in a photo. Which, IMO, there usually isn't. You always have choices, and for the most part they are subjective. It's not like math.

If you drove to the mall, I would not critique how you got there. You got there, okay? You made choices, and they might be different next time. But you got there.

So let's start with a little background info on Arjen, then work through some of the choices he made and explore some he didn't. It's all good.

Malawi By Way of Amsterdam

Some background: Having visited Arjen moved to Malawi from Amsterdam in 2005. His wife found work there and he has since set up as a local photographer.

In addition to some photojournalism work, he now does a mix of commercial, shoots for some NGOs and wedding/portrait work. In the past he used flash on camera as a PJ, and sometimes shot with AC-powered big lights.

But in Malawi, speedlights are more than just a travel convenience. They also still work when AC power is unavailable due to location or an all-too-common blackout.

Arjen balances his desire to photograph grassroots Africa with the need to earn a living, hence the commercial work. This portrait of a chef was from a job for the hotel chain Sunbird, who needed new photos after an upgrade. (A Google map of the hotel is here.)

At His Disposal:

His camera/lighting gear includes a pair of digital Nikons, three Nikon speedlights, a small 200ws monobloc, white/silver umbrellas and a small soft box with grid. That's good to know as it helps to define options for him for this shot.

He said he felt as if his normally successful quick lighting setup—silver umbrella up and near the camera—failed him this time. He suspects it was because the room was kind of large and thus did not offer much natural fill. He felt the wall was dark and that the face was too specular (i.e., shiny).

A Lot of Good Choices

First, let's look at what he did do. One, like many photographers would have, he found the Trompe-l'oeil painting on the wall hard to resist as a background. Almost without seeing the rest of the dining room, I can pretty much guess I would have chosen the same thing.

Two—and this is not a given—he pulled out good exposures on both the chef's dark skin and the near white outfit. This happened because he used a soft light source fairly near the lens axis. It is lighting the white and giving us a specular highlight off of the chef's face.

If he did not do this, the tonal range of the subject white/dark could have given him fits.

Three, he's got a natural, inviting expression. Not always easy with subjects who are normal people (as opposed to models) who can easily go all deer-in-headlights on you. Likely a testament to Arjen's time as a photojournalist.

And here's what you don't see. Chef is actually at a serving table, which is mercifully cropped out by Arjen. Time is tight. People are milling about.

So, from here on out I am going to explore some other choices that were available. Mind you I get to do this with hindsight and unlimited time, neither of which Arjen had.

And I am going to assume you could squeeze a couple of minutes to prep and five mins or so to shoot this photo. Take over for a few minutes. Own the space. You are running the show and your subject is the celebrity. No warnings, just do it.

If your minder gives you blowback, you look him/her in the eye with your most sympathetic expression and play the big money card:

"The owners spent a lot (head down and raise the eyebrow when you say, 'a lot') of money to improve this hotel. Do we want a rush job or do we want it to look good? Because I can do it either way..."

Ultimate blame for the results of rushing the photographer successfully shifted, you may now calmly go about your work.

So here are some thoughts, ranging from the low-hanging fruit fixes to the Nth degree stuff:

Lock in on the Trompe-l'oeil

No-brainer. I don't use tripods very often, but they are great for fine-tuning and locking in a composition. Which is exactly why I would have gone with one here.

The beauty and formality of this background just begs to be meticulously nailed down and precisely framed. It'll take a minute or so, but that time is easily spent gushing about how cool it is as a background. And once locked in you can move the chef around in the frame (left, right, backward, forward) refocus, and all will look great.

Mind the 99%

No less than Arnold Newman once said that good photography is 1% inspiration and 99% moving furniture. I'd do whatever I could to address the items on the table visible in the bottom corners.

You do this either by camera position (dictated by the need for your background framing) or just move them if at all possible. Six inches. No worries.

Maybe Imitate that Background Light

And speaking of that cool background, there is a direction to the light in the painting. The sun seems to be coming from hard back left. So it would be very cool to key the guy from that direction, too. But you'd need to profile him to do it.

There are lots of ways you could pose him. And you could do several quick-change versions with your tripod nailed down. But I'd include a camera-left-facing profile among them, if just to marry the guy to the painting.

You could even cheat it toward camera juuust a little bit.

You'll need two light sources, which Arjen has. Fill is most important, as it will carry that background.

Big room? Good. Use the power of that mono and move the fill back (or better yet, bounce it off of a ceiling or back wall) to get it far away from the subject. This will set up a tight lighting ratio (light-to-subject vs light-to-background) that will keep your wall from going too dark.

And really, it is not that dark here. Just looks that way because the white outfit is in front of it.

Fill set, let's look at a key light. I'd go with his small soft box, back camera left just outside of the frame against the wall. Grid it (he has that, too) to keep it off the wall and angle in back at camera to hit chef's profile.

Once you have these lights set up, you can walk that key anywhere you want ad get a lot of different looks very easily. Exposure is still built upon your soft frontal fill as a base, which you could just leave in place.

Mind Your Shadow

Let's say you are just doing it one-light, tho. I normally do not key right above the camera, but I would consider it here.

Why? The shadow on the wall. The shadow tells us Arjen's light was close to the camera, but to camera right. The shadow kinda disrupts the Trompe-l'oeil fantasy, so let's kill it.

We'll do that by lighting from directly over and behind the camera. Chef will hide the shadow. If we raise and back that light up, the ratio will tighten and the wall will get brighter as we adjust the aperture for the new light position. (If that does not make sense, see here.)

Mind Your Specular

Love that Arjen got the big light source close enough to the camera to get that large specular highlight. That large (and, technically false) tone gives chef's face some great tone and depth.

He could go one better by switching to a white umbrella, which is not as shiny/specular. The nice, broad highlights would still define the subject's face, but without the shiny. (Which is not very bad to begin with, IMO.)

Vary, and Simplify

Okay, so you are locked down to the nice-background composition. Use that to your advantage and vary the subject position. I wouldn't even include the food until the end. Maybe go with something that connotes breakfast and is simpler, like a glass of orange juice. Or OJ in a champagne glass, which is visually a mimosa.

I'd bring him in closer for some photos, too. And when the food comes, that plate of food almost looks like a smile. Even better if you tweaked it on the plate just a tad. That could be a nice little (subtle) second layer, but you have to get the rotation and tilt just right. Play.

Also, you could avoid the hand amputation by having him place his right (camera left) hand behind his back. That'd clean it up nicely—and it is a classic waiter pose, so it fits.

Go For Moments

Whatever you do, after you lock down the variables (framing, background, camera, light, etc.) remember to concentrate 100% on the human stuff when shooting.

And I say this knowing full well that I often get mired in the technical to the expense of the human. Lock down what you can and switch completely to interpersonal mode.

Once you have the buttoned-down photos, you have nothing to lose. The safe smiles are already in the can. Whether he is holding the OJ or the full breakfast, whatever you can do to coax a moment out of him is fair game.

(When holding the OJ) "Forget it's orange juice. You're James Bond and that is your martini. Turn towards me in the bar."

(When holding the plate of food) "Don't just hold the food. Present it to me. Show it off. (click) Like I'm your girlfriend (click) and you just made me breakfast in bed. (click) And I am totally naked. (clickclickclick)"

If he is not married, that will get you a moment. If he is married, it will get you a better moment.

Whatever it takes. Everything else is nailed down at this point. Anything fun you can get is pure gravy.

So, many thanks for Arjen for being a good sport and letting us Monday Morning Quarterback his image. And like I said above, there is no right or wrong here. Just subjective choices, tweaks, tricks and outright suggestions of marital infidelity.


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