A Belly Dancer, A Violinist, Some Lights And A Couple of Cameras

Zaras Veils

Meet Zara

Tsura On The Floor Smiling

Meet Tsura

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I think I’ve written in an earlier blog post that I used to consider myself primarily a landscape photographer , i.e. I never photographed people that much.  Then, I moved to Texas and became involved with the King’s Feast at the Texas Renaissance Festival.  One thing led to another and I was capturing images of festival actors, dancers, families, weddings, and other people-populated events.

Because of an increase in portrait sessions and weddings (yay me), I finally decided to invest in some relatively inexpensive studio lights and umbrellas that would be portable enough for me to use on-location (as long as there are nearby outlets or as long as I can afford to rent a portable battery source).  My own home is not set up with any sort of studio and I live a good hour’s drive away from the Houston metro area.  Because of this, it’s much easier for me to go to the client rather than have the client come to me.

Note:  this is a long post because of all the info I want to share, along with the resulting photos.  I could have broken this up into shorter blogs, but I am hoping your attention spans will not be so short that you don’t soak up a little bit of what I have learned that I want to pass on to you for your own endeavors.  I’ve personally read through extremely lengthy blog posts written by others, so I figure I’m not an anomaly.

Recently, I spent a couple of hours working with a belly dancer and a violinist, both members of the Gypsy Dance Theatre as well as artists in their own right, performing at other (mainly evening) venues such as coffee houses and cozy atmospheric restaurants and cafes.  Both Zara (the belly dancer) and Tsura (the violinist) needed some portfolio shots.

The time spent with them was rich not only in wonderful photo ops but also wonderful challenges and learning lessons.

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In my own mind, when I think of studio photography, I am thinking of a space with plenty of room to move around the model(s) and a backdrop anywhere from 7 feet to 20 feet behind the model(s).  In reality, the studio setup for this session was a small living room full of furniture and one soft little dog that kept wondering what was happening to his world (and who, on occasion, wanted to be a part of the scenery).

Lucky and Zara

I arrived on location an hour early in order to move the furniture around, set up the lights, and run a few practice shots to see where best to place the umbrellas.   I’ve been reading one of Scott Kelby’s books “The Digital Photography Book 4”  and he notes that for great lighting, one needs a large soft box (or umbrella, in my case) quite close to the model (the closer the light source, the softer the light on the model).   According to Kelby, keeping things simple is also a key factor so only one light is really all that is needed as opposed to a plethora of lights; the more the lights, the more the complications.   To get really soft light over a lot of the model, a soft box (or umbrella) of greater than 50” is recommended.

I used two Interfit EZ Lite 500 watt tungsten lights that I purchased as a kit. One of those lights was behind a Westcott 7’ parabolic white umbrella  which I used in lieu of that 50+ inch soft box close to the model (an umbrella was cheaper and I still claimed ignorance regarding studio lighting at the time I purchased the umbrella). The other light was attached to a smaller white umbrella for rim lighting.   The room was small so there was maybe 1 – 3 feet of space between the models and the beige living room wall (I liked that better than using a white background).

Studio Setup1_U9A0136

Studio Setup

I utilized both my Canon 1-DX and Canon 5D Mk III cameras. Ultimately, I liked the 1-DX better because it was much faster – particularly for the veil dancing images.   I used the Canon 24-70mm f2.8L II lens for the wider compositions. For the headshots and closer comps, I initially started out using the Canon 85mm f1.2 lens.   I LOVE this lens.   It’s my absolute favorite and my ultimate go-to for portrait work.   However, because I had very little “wiggle room” in terms of where I stood while using this lens – which in turn restricted what I could fit into the composition – I ultimately changed over to the Canon 50mm f1.2 lens for a bit of a wider view.   I started out on tripod but quickly abandoned that in favor of handholding the camera (which is another reason I preferred the much faster 1-DX over the 5D Mk III).

I know many photographers use aperture priority for this kind of work, but I like to do things the hard way and stick to total Manual Mode, setting both the aperture and shutter speed to my own liking rather than the camera’s liking.  It makes me think about things and situations more.  Plus, I am a control freak and like having that feeling of total control over the settings.   It’s sort of like owning a car with a stick shift (which I do) rather than one that’s fully automatic.

Shutter speeds, ISO, and apertures varied.  I used an aperture anywhere from f2.8 to f5.  ISO was between 200 and 400, and shutter speed was between 80 and 160, depending on whether I was photographing a still model or a twirling, veil-waving model.

I used Adobe Lightroom 4 and Adobe Photoshop CS6 for my photo editing.  I also applied Imagenomic’s Portraiture plug in to all of my photos.  I own and have used a couple of different portraiture applications, but this one, by far, is my favorite.  And, of course, I had to clone out other things like pimples and stray hairs across the face and also hot spots (overly bright areas) on the face.  Plus, I brightened the whites of the eyes and sometimes the teeth in a number of shots.  These are portfolio images where the models wanted to look their absolute best.

Smiling Zara

Twirling Zara

I once read on a Facebook comment that “Confidence is the feeling you have before you understand the full extent of the situation”.   I was relatively confident throughout the photo session (but only after I became comfortable with the continuous lights and umbrellas in action).   I can also tell you (with confidence) that portrait post-processing takes much longer to accomplish than editing a landscape photo.

All that being said, I am very pleased with the results, some selections of which I share here with you.

Zara Full Length

Aqua Zara Full Length

Scott Kelby’s book mentions that the look (and length) of the model can vary quite a bit depending on the height from which the photographer is aiming the camera.  The top full-length image of Zara was taken with me standing atop a small step-ladder aiming the  camera down toward her.  The bottom image of Zara was taken with me sitting on the step-ladder aiming the camera slightly up toward her.

Hissy In His Box

Looking At Each Other

Zara and Hissy

Zara kept talking about how she wanted lots of pictures taken with Hissy.  I thought Hissy was the nickname she’d given to the other model coming to this photo shoot.  Turns out Hissy is Zara’s pet snake which she uses in a number of her dance routines.

Pinup Perfect_Special Effects

Cool Tsura - Original

Tsura_Perfect Effects

Zara Full Length_Perfect Effects

In addition to the regular editing tools I utilized  in Adobe Lightroom 4 and Adobe Photoshop CS6, I also applied this wonderful plug in by OnOne Software called Perfect Effects 4.  This plug in allowed me to choose from a bunch of different presets (one on top of the other, if I wished) to which I could make my own tweaks.  Depending upon my preset choices, I was able to add a little kick, edginess, softness or glamour to selected images.  For those of you who are not familiar with a preset, it’s a file composed of a number of settings  which – much like a spreadsheet macro – may be applied to any photo you happen to be editing.

Zaras Veils

Zaras Veils Velveteen Effect

Zara - Darker Background

Zara_Veils_Dark Background

Ah, the background.  As you noticed from the photos of the studio setup near the top of this post, the workspace was limited.  The model stood anywhere from 1- to 3-feet away from the beige wall background.  So, in the editing stage, I took some liberties to change up the background a little.  I either used a preset from my Perfect Effects 4 plug in, or, I created a separate layer and then used the Magic Wand tool or the Magnetic Lasso tool in Photoshop to select only the background (and in some cases, the floor as well).  I then used the Gaussian Blur filter at an extremely high pixel count (977.2 pixels, to be exact) to totally blur out the background and floor.  This effect also created (to my pleasant surprise) a certain amount of color bleed from the costume and the veils.  I then created a mask for that particular layer in order to “paint in” only the blurred background and floor, leaving the model alone.  This process turned out to be pretty cool and I was able to show Zara how she looked against a dark background (she’d been worried that a dark backdrop would totally hide her dark hair and dark costumes).  I told her that with good rim lighting, that wouldn’t have been too much of an issue.

Tsuras Profile

Speaking of rim lighting, I read in Kelby’s book that you can get a neat rim light profile silhouette by doing the following:  have your model stand very close and to the side of your rim light.  So, as Tsura was walking past the umbrella, I had her stop, face the light, then take a few sideways steps so that she wasn’t smack dab in the middle of the umbrella, blinding herself in the process.

Pinup Girl_Special Effects

Tsura Headshot

At one point, I turned off the rim light and simply used the large 7’ parabolic umbrella turned so that the open end of the ‘brella was facing the models and the light source was bouncing off of the umbrella, rather than shooting through it.  This created a harder light which was wonderful for those side-lit images that allowed the shadows to outline parts of the face and body.  It also created some neat side shadows as well on the wall.

I used to pooh-pooh studio photography thinking I would never be doing that sort of thing.  Never say never.  I now admit that I enjoy playing with the scenes afforded me by continuous lighting.  I also enjoy the creativity I can apply to such challenges as limited studio space, backdrops, and the overall final image.  Oh, I’m still a landscape photographer, and am still in the learning stages of studio shoots, but I LOVE stretching my photographic “muscles” to broaden my photographic experience in order to produce an image that elicits some type of reaction from the viewer.

Tsura and Zara


Filed under Equipment, Photography, Portraits, Studio Lights

2 responses to “A Belly Dancer, A Violinist, Some Lights And A Couple of Cameras

  1. Nice, varied portrait session, Becky. Your client has to be happy with those results.