Review – Lighting, posing and retouching with Hannah Couzens

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Couzens, portrait photographer extraordinaire.  I went on her Basics of Studio Lighting course earlier in the year and had a great time as well as learning a lot of lighting stuff that I’ve been using ever since.  So this next level course was a great way to follow up on that with some more complex lighting techniques as well as learning more about working with and posing models and some very useful tips on portrait retouching.

Hannah ran two classes on back to back days in November and luckily for me the one I was on was all ladies and one of them was also on the previous course with me, so there was a great feeling of cohortiness (yes I’m making up words now) and the atmosphere was relaxed but the participants were also highly motivated and asking lots of useful questions – just what you want in a small group course like this (there were 4 of us in case you were wondering).

We started the day with corporate headshots of our male model.  This is a really practical thing to have up your sleeve as there’s money to be made with corporate headshots if you’re good at it – so I’ll definitely be looking for some opportunities to practice this.  Hannah builds up all the lighting set ups from one light first and then adding lights in and all the while we talking about the posing, how to get a friendlier looking image and coping with common challenges like double chins, glasses and scowling finance directors.  Probably my top tip from this section was about separating the dark suit from a dark background with a back/hair/rim light.

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Corporate headshot with separation lighting from the back

 

Next up was a more fitness style set up, also with our male model.  This started off simple, building up to 3 lights plus a back light with a gel and a smoke machine.  Great fun and, while this is not a set up I can easily replicate on location or in my tiny studio, the posing in particular will be really helpful.  Again, fitness style portraits are a growth area and posing them right is tricky. You want edgy for fitness shots so the lighting needs to be really precise.

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Fitness style shot set up – lights included!

 

After lunch we met Lucy our professional fashion and beauty model for the afternoon.  We began with a Q&A session during which Lucy talked about her experiences working with different photographers, including a few horror stories about over re-touching, overstepping boundaries and uncomfortable situations.  In particular it was interesting to hear that even professional models like Lucy appreciate some direction and encouragement that they’re giving you what you want in terms of looks and poses.  Given this, I now feel a bit more confident giving direction as I was always worried about coming across as too bossy during shoots, whether with models or regular people – I’m a lot less worried about that now and I think I’m getting better images as a result.

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Shooting Lucy for a soft and pretty look as well as a more classic beauty shot was an absolute pleasure.  We had a lot of fun playing with both the lights and the poses and I particularly enjoyed some shots lit for black and white as this is a big part of my work.  I’m getting myself a second speedlight for Christmas so that I can give some of these a go in the new year!

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My new posing and retouching skills at work here – although it’s pretty easy to make it look awesome with a great model like Lucy!

 

As with the previous course, Hannah really packed in the content so there wasn’t as much time on the retouching section as was intended (I think!) as we were having too much fun shooting.  To be honest I think my brain was both fried and buzzing at this time so any more would probably not have gone in well.  Hannah covered frequency separation retouching for skin, which I’ve since been reading more about and having this basic grounding has been useful in exploring the technique further.  For more on this I went to my Kelby One video training subscription and Kristina Sherk – definitely worth getting the free trial to access her course High End Portrait Retouching for a more detailed look at retouching.  But honestly I wouldn’t have known where to start without Hannah’s introduction.

Once again Hannah hit it out of the park with this course, such a relaxed but energetic atmosphere and jam packed with content and some excellent opportunities to practice and get great images.  I made some friends too so that’s a bonus!  Hannah is genuinely supportive as well and there’s a great sense of being part of a club.  She’s always happy to answer questions both during the course and afterwards and she shares a lot of really useful lighting techniques online for free – she’s just a really nice person which counts for a lot in my book.  It’s not a cheap course but it’s a full-on day and a very small group so you get a lot for your money and I think if you’re looking to take your portrait photography to the next level, maybe start charging or start charging more, this course is a good investment in your photographic future.

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One of my favourite shots from the day – lots of fun in post processing!

 

 

 

Lighting, posing and retouching with Hannah Couzens – News you can use!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking *****
Pre-event communications *****
Personalisation and 1:1 attention ****
Information and Learning *****
Approachability *****
Location *****
Cost *** £250
Image review and feedback ***
Post-event feedback and follow-up ***

 

The autumn dream shoot -not what I planned, but not to worry!

I don’t normally blog about particular shoots I do, because I try and keep my blogs useful and the internet is full of pretty pictures afterall.  However, firstly I’m just so pleased with how this came out, and secondly it is kind of useful to talk about what happened.

This shoot was LONG in the planning.  I’d had an idea to do something around autumn in the forest, something that used a fashion look with a sort of Shakespearian twist.  I’d identified some great autumn colour in local woodlands, gone on extensive recces, planned the whole thing shot by shot, got my models lined up and…..

Well of course it rained! This is the UK in November afterall.  As my models were lined up and ready to go, and they are busy people and getting another day would have been virtually impossible – I had to make ‘lemonade’ so to speak, and move the whole thing indoors.

Now I don’t have a studio.  I have the box room at home that is full of cupboards, musical instruments and bookcases and which most of the time is the room I use to dry laundry in.  It’s just about 2 metres wide, but really it’s 1.3 metres wide because of the furniture on the walls.  Despite this my lovely husband has fitted a rail at one end so I can hang a back cloth and the walls are white and there’s a nice big window that lets in plenty of light.

Of course I couldn’t shoot the planned shots, many of which relied heavily on wide aspects taking in the landscape and picking up the colours. Making the models look small against the wide wilderness, a sense of getting lost and finding something unexpected.  Instead I decided to pick up on another idea I’ve been playing with, traditional portraits with aspects of fantasy.  I had to keep the images quite tight due to the space restrictions and the fact that my backdrop was neither wide enough nor long enough (it’s just a bit of brown velvet fabric I originally bought for doing still life).  However, that meant I could focus more on implementing some of the lighting and posing tips from my last class with Hannah Couzens and on getting the technique just right.

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I’m really pleased with how these images came out, they are a lot more intimate than the shots I originally planned, and my mother and daughter models love the connection they capture by being shot in such close quarters.  It really helps when you have beautiful friends you can call on to model and next year I reckon we’ll try again for the outdoor shots with the story I had planned, but maybe earlier in October when the weather might hold for us!

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Thank you so much Nic and Annabelle and Juliette who once again shone with the flower crowns.

www.siantphoto.com

 

What a good ‘About Us’ section with awesome photos adds to your small business website

In helping out some friends and photography clients with their websites recently, I’ve been thinking about the obligatory ‘About Us’ section and how that’s developed over time and how it can make a big difference to the feel and appeal of a site.  In the early days of the business website, and still on many long running and large corporate sites, the ‘About Us’ section is a turgid, often buried page required by web designers but neglected by site owners.  The section typically states when your business started, where it’s based and necessary but dull information such as opening times and service statements.  In today’s social internet however, there is an opportunity to use this section to engage with potential customers and really sell what makes your business the place they should go.  Particularly for small business owners, it’s a place to build your brand and sell your personality, tell people about why you’re special and what you can do for them.

Of course you need to have the practical information on your site, where you are, what you do and when you’re open but I’d suggest labelling those pages clearly with what it is “opening hours” “how to find us” and so on.  It’ll make it easier for people (and search engines) to find those details when they want them.

Here are my suggestions for things you might try with your About Us section to make it work harder for your business.

1. Use images of yourself and your staff

If people are coming to you for a personal service (particularly if they’re inviting you into their home or it involves their body or wellbeing) they want to know who to expect and may feel more confident if they can ‘make eye contact’ before they meet you.  In the same way as a good, open, friendly profile picture can make or break your online dating profile, so it can with your business.  If people feel they’re coming to a real person, not a faceless corporation they will be more likely to engage and build long term brand loyalty.  I see a lot of websites with images of the store, or generic stock images representing the service – but I just don’t think they are as engaging as those with pictures of the real people you’ll meet if you go there.

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2. Sell yourselves as well as your product

There’s quite a movement out there now supporting the use of smaller, local businesses so don’t be afraid to get personal and talk about who you are and why you’re running this business.  People want to know that you’re passionate about what you do, what your vision is and why you’re the best option for them.  Talk about your training, ongoing professional development and interests as well as about the services you offer. Don’t be afraid to say you’re a small, local business – it can work in your favour if people feel they’re going to get a more personal service, someone they can ring up and talk to and someone who has an interest in making sure they’re really satisfied with the service or product.

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3. Use images that fit your brand

Having professional images made for use on your website is often seen as a luxury, but it is money well spent.  If the images of your staff are just holiday snaps you’ve got them to submit, or worse  – passport style mugshots –  it shows!  Your images should be in keeping with your brand, fitting with your brand colour scheme, style and the profession you’re working in.  Action shots are great, show yourself and/or your staff at work doing their thing, but make sure these images are well lit, consistent and good quality or it will look a mess.  Combine this with some great headshots of the people you work with and you’ve got a comprehensive image library showing your business at its best.

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4. Create an inspiring statement

I’ve found that small business are often reluctant to shout about themselves on their website.  They’re wary of overstating how good they are for fear that they won’t live up to expectations.  However, there’s a balance here.  Obviously you need to be totally truthful about your business, but in the same way as a good CV focuses on the positive and achievements, so your About Us description should sing about what you can do.  Your description of your business needs to reflect your passion for it, your vision for the business and the persona you want people to see.  Keep it short, but use emotive language to draw people in.  For example here are 2 descriptions I found in the about us section on  two different sites for plumbers (anonymised of course)

X Plumbers is a local company headed by Joe Bloggs, an award winning engineer with over 20 years’ experience. Quality workmanship and customer satisfaction are paramount to our ethos”

“We offer domestic plumbing and heating services of all aspects in Timbuktu and the surrounding areas. We specialise in central heating systems, boiler servicing and gas safety checks, energy efficient controls and solar water heating systems”

The first one is what I’d like to see, it’s warmer and more personal.  The second one is factual, and there’s a place for that information on the website – but not in the About Us section!

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5. Think about navigation

Now that you’ve invested time and effort in your About Us section make sure that people can find it.  Make the link prominent on your site so that people will click it, again use of a gorgeous image will help here.  Many pre-made website templates put the link to this section just at the footer of the homepage but very few people are going to look for it there.

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Find out more about me at www.siantphoto.com

 

 

Getting creative with children’s portraits – babes in the wood!

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how to vamp up the traditional children’s portrait and create something unique that’s fun for the kids but also fun to shoot.  I spotted that a local florist had posted some snaps of flower crowns she was making for a wedding and decided to create something around these beautiful pieces. Luckily for me, the lovely florist Juliette was up for doing the crowns for me free of charge in exchange for access to the images and so all that remained was to style the rest of the shoot around them.

I began by creating a mood board, gathering ideas about colours and locations as well as the overall feel I wanted.  I’m fortunate to live within spitting distance of the Surrey Hills so finding a lovely open space with good light and plenty of green was straightforward and I’ve used this particular spot before for family shoots and love the graphical nature of the dead tree.  It’s great for kids because its a very short level walk from the car park and the tree makes a fun climbing frame for use even when we’re not shooting.

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My wonderful models are the children of my local friends and I owe their parents much of the success of this shoot because they did an amazing job of sorting the girls out with outfits that met what I was after.  I wanted two different looks from the shoot, one more of a rock chick look with denim and black, as a contrast to the softness of the flowers and to reflect the personalities of these girls – who are not really girly girls at all.

 

And then one more dreamy but not too ‘bridal’ looking, to make a sort of modern take on a sixties/seventies look, flower power and the summer of love.

 

The important thing here was to make sure the girls were having fun!  The whole shoot took around 90 minutes and we had plenty of breaks for them to just hang out while we were doing wardrobe changes and sorting out gear.  Any longer than that and I think they would have got fed up.  As it was we got a great selection of beautiful images and a really good mix of serious and smiley faces which is something I want from every shoot.

You can never be sure how kids will respond to this kind of modelling and I really think that the key is never to push for a shot that just isn’t happening – the more you push the more they will push back – it’s just what kids do.  You have to go with the flow and take advantage when a good shot presents itself.  Some direction helps but you have to take what they give you and it can be golden.  The shot above centre is a case in point.  The only instruction I gave her was put your hand on the log and look at me – that foot point we can only think comes from watching a lot of Strictly Come Dancing!

When working with kids I also find that having a lot of gear is a problem – they seem to react negatively to having lights or even reflectors in their face.  So all these images were shot on moderately high iso with only the available light.  Fortunately this is an area with really good even light and it was an overcast day so shadows were minimised.  However, this did mean they took longer than usual to process, as more sharpening and smoothing was needed due to the higher iso and the need to shoot fairly wide to get enough light in. However, it’s worth it to get the shots with happy mini-models in natural daylight.

A massive thank you to my mini-models and their two Mums (and one Grandma) who were just wonderful on the shoot.  A shout out too to Juliette Phipps who did the flowers and who I hope to work with again soon – you can find her work at https://www.facebook.com/FlowersByJuliette

 

For more of my work visit www.siantphoto.com

 

Documentary of family life – Monkey See, Monkey Do

Some of my favourite images are more documentary in style. These are quieter, more intimate images of the family as it is naturally, when there is no photographer watching.

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When I was little, it was de rigeur for Mum to drag us all down to the local photography studio (anyone else remember Olan Mills?) for an annual photo session. These images are hilarious now, the funky mottled backgrounds, everyone in their best clothes, the cheesy smiles and retro hair do’s – I love them but they are certainly of a time.  Mum would consider any image that didn’t have us all looking at the camera and smiling as a failure and woe betide you if you were the one not playing ball that day (my siblings will be laughing out loud at this point – sorry Mum!).

Now I have my own kid, I still love the smiling images, and when I work for clients I’ll do my best to get that shot – preferably with genuine smiles all round.  But some of my favourite images are more documentary in style.  These are quieter, more intimate images of the family as it is naturally, when there is no photographer watching.

In this personal project, I wanted to look at the relationship between my young son Isaac and his dad.  I wanted to capture this strange space they’ve built (complete with rather odd signs) and look at how they work there together.  I confess I don’t entirely understand their relationship.  It is often fractious, always intense and so full of a strange love that I think is something quite different to my own relationship with either of them.  It is beautiful, although many don’t agree that these images are very beautiful. However, I think in the long run they are a more true representation of family life.

Enjoy!

Www.siantphoto.com
 

 

New discoveries in photography podcasts

It’s been quite a while since I wrote my original Top 3 Photography podcasts blog and I’ve discovered some great new shows so I thought I’d share them with you all today.  I love a good podcast when driving or when pottering around the house and I’ve learnt a huge amount, about both the technical and artistic aspects of photography through podcasts.  However, there are so many out there which ones should you choose?  Here are my current recommendations

1. Petapixel Photography Podcast with Sharky James

Now at episode 111 and linked to the ever-so-useful Petapixel photography news site, this is a really fun podcast about whatever’s new in the photography world that week.  It covers new gear and software as well as a whole lot of other news content including ethical issues, copyright and silly season stories about photographers around the world.  Sharky is a sports photographer in the main so we also get to hear about what he’s been up to on the sidelines at football games (that’s American football for you Brits) and every week he introduces someone from the world of photography as part of his intro – this is really useful if you’re looking for people to follow on Instagram!

Fairly short and sweet, the shows usually contain a number of different stories with plenty of Sharky’s dry sense of humour thrown in.  I just love the fact he calls it like he sees it and so much of what he says is grounded in grown-up, family man thinking with plenty of pragmatism and a realistic view of what’s sensible for the average photographer.  Sharky is also really active on social media so follow what he’s up to on Instagram.

 

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2. TWIP (this week in photo) Family with Jenny Stein

Good podcasts that have just one guest per episode are hard to come by, but I love TWIP Family in which mom and photographer Jenny Stein talks to guests whose work is primarily around family and child photography.  The conversation ranges from discussions about their artistic vision and the meaning of their images, to practical business matters.  I’ve found the business aspects particularly useful over the past few months as I’ve been launching and developing my own photography business. It’s not the same as taking a class in that there’s not a lot of detailed information to be had, but learning about the different approaches to a successful photography business is really helpful in plotting your own course.  I still think you’d get a lot out of the podcast if you’re not in business, but some episodes more than others.

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3. Photo Taco with Jeff Harmon

Part of The Improve Photography Network, Photo Taco is the only place you can get “photo tips you can learn in the time it takes to eat a taco–or perhaps a burrito” – I love that tag line!  I’ve only just started listening to this one, initially because Sharky James was a guest in a mammoth episode they did on sports photography – but so far I’m enjoying it.  The tips themselves range from the sort of Q&A style session with Sharky, to information on features of digital imaging software, to a really basic explanation of what the numbers and letters on lenses mean.  It’s usually short (that’s kinda the point) so even if you think you know all about the topic, it’s worth a listen as more than likely you’ll pick up a nugget or two.

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This week’s images are of East Wittering in Sussex – one of my favourite weekend photo destinations and hopefully where I’ll be heading tomorrow – if the rain ever stops!

 

Creating the perfect family holiday album – my 5 top tips!

5 super useful tips on creating the perfect holiday photo album

Even before I became a professional photographer (I still get a kick out of that – I get paid to do this!) I loved getting back from a trip and sorting out the photos into a kickass album.  Before online services that make photobooks were commonplace I used to stick them in scrap books and shop-bought albums and now I spend a happy few (ok many) hours laying them out in book production software (see here for my review of Saal Digital – my new favourite book service) and then waiting in anticipation for the printed book to arrive in the post.

We all take photos on holiday, whether with your phone, compact camera, SLR or mirrorless and it’s a shame to leave them languishing on your hardrive. Ok – so no one wants to sit through hours of someone else’s holiday photos (yawn!) but if you’ve got them in a book and someone asks you can show them, and they can flick through.  And next time you’re trying to remember something from the holiday, or just fancy reliving those memories, it’s so much nicer to grab the book from the shelf than to try and hunt them out on the computer.

So what makes a fab family holiday photo album I hear you ask?

Here are my 5 top tips;

1. Include the details.  If you know me you’ll know that this something I’m always banging on about – but I stand by it.  When you’re on holiday, take pictures of the little things; details of the sites in the town you’re visiting, interesting hotel features like taps and door handles, your breakfast, coffee or dessert for instance.  These are great to scatter through the album, giving a sense of the place you’ve been and adding variety (since most of your pictures will be of people!).  Getting good big-landscape shots is hard but these smaller things can be just as evocative.  You can use these as backgrounds if you’re making a book online or throw them in as a full page spread from time to time, either is nice.

 

2. Think about colour.  When you’re laying out your images think about grouping them in colour themes. The obvious thing to do is group the images by location, but look beyond that to images that work well together and have a colour theme or consistency to them.  If the colours in an image don’t compliment each other don’t organise them side by side, consider moving them to different pages.

 

3. Include the phone snaps! Most of us don’t take a big camera everywhere on holiday (ok some do!) but you usually have your phone and most camera phones now are good enough that you can print the images from them.  On my last trip I caught some great moments with the phone and with great mobile editing tools like Snapseed and Hipstamatic these are just as worthy of inclusion as any other photo.  I try to make my phone images look like phone images because I like that it gives me a different, kookier look than my SLR and I like the freedom to snap, edit and share quickly.  So whether you shot the whole trip on your phone, or just a few frames don’t feel they aren’t worthy and be sure to include them.

 

4. Keep it simple. Think about any professionally  produced travel photography book you’ve ever seen.  Did it have whacky layouts with loads of images on a page, all at jaunty angles and overlapping?  I doubt it. Were the backgrounds luminous pink or textured to look like a basket? I think not.  Did it have little sticker type cliparts all over?  There’s a reason for that – it looks naff!  So many online book producing services offer these features and they are often branded as holiday themed, or fun themed.  My advice is stick to neutral plain backgrounds, keep your images straight and don’t put more than 2 images on a page.  Any more than that and they end up so small they will be missed, or the page is so busy that it has no impact.  If you’ve got a great image make it big, even a full double page spread and watch people say wow as they turn the page.

5. Make sure you’re in it! As the person behind the camera we often forget to include images with us in.  These albums will be important to your family later down the line, and they’ll want to see you in them – even if you look like hell (see image below – the only one of me from our USA trip, a drowned rat after a rain storm in Charlotte!).  I’m the worst at sticking to this advice, but this is a case of do as I say, not as I do.  I’m getting better at it, there is as least one image from this year’s trip, compared to zero in previous years!

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