On Shoot With SPD Tuition & Coaching


Camera at the ready! 

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In typical British style let me start by asking, how great is this weather we've been having ey? Blazing sunshine in February is something that I certainly do not remember, usually we're in the grips of a cold snap or in fear of impending snow flurries. I hope that everyone made the most of it, and if you visited the UK in the last couple of weeks, you were truly blessed with the weather.

I couldn't have been more grateful for winter sun last Sunday as this was the day I took a big step in my journey as a photographer; I had agreed to do a series of promo shots for a new start-up business, a first in many ways for me. My subject for the day was the proprietor of SPD Tuition & Coaching, a brand new company specializing in the tutoring and coaching of children and life coaching for business owners and executives. But more than just being a shining beacon of child and professional development, Sam of SPD is my sister and asked me to help her with some images for her website, social media, and all that good stuff.

This shoot posed several big challenges for me, firstly I had little more than a vague idea of what Sam was looking to achieve. We had made attempts to discuss ideas for the shoot, but she didn't really know or couldn't really describe what she wanted; and I, as the photographer who shoots more candid, have no idea how to communicate with someone and extract from them what they are looking for.

Having a reasonably broad range of clientele, SPD needs images that both appeal to parents and high-level professionals, so I needed to capture images that look friendly, fun but at the same time show a serious and dedicated hard working individual that you would want to hire. Stuffy corporate portraits were out (thankfully), and there was no need for ridiculous costumes, makeup, and balloons. 

Fortunately, Sam had given the shoot more thought than I had and sourced 3 excellent locations for the shoot and gave me enough of an idea of what she was looking for. With (a sort of ) brief in hand, it was time to get to work!

Coffee anyone? 

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Our first location was a local coffee shop near to where Sam lives, the owner of which she knows quite well and had asked ahead of the shoot if we could use the space. By a stroke of luck, an electrical problem had caused the shop to close, but this didn't affect the lighting and meant that we had the run of the small cute shop front. I had advised Sam that any locations she considered must have a lot of natural light as I do not shoot flash, and she hit the nail on the head with this first stop. The café was on the corner of her street and had large windows on two sides, one of which let the low super bright winter sun beaming straight through. As great as this sounds, it did throw up my second problem.

The layout of the shop meant that a few of the key shots would see Sam backlit by the sun and so be entirely in shadow, not an ideal situation to be in when I'm trying to portray her bright personality. This is where a tiny bit of preparation made a MASSIVE difference to the overall shoot! The day before I had a rummage through a box of stuff to find a reflector I had received as a free gift with a magazine subscription, something that I had never used before, and didn't think I ever would, I had thought that I might have thrown it away! We had called P (my brother in law) down to the shop with some props that had been left behind and I seized the opportunity to employ his service in holding the reflector through a few shots.

As I had not used the reflector before I didn't really know how much of a difference it was going to make to the overall shots, but I was blown away with the results! With some direction of the reflected light into the shadows of Sam's face, it was like using a flash but with the natural light instead of a false washed out intense burst. The reflector worked exceptionally well at making my subject stand out despite the strong backlight behind.

There were some trial and error in getting the positioning right, which wasn't P's fault at all, but my lousy direction. After a few shots from a low angle where the sunlight was strongest, I noticed the unnatural rising shadow behind in the portrait shots which really detracted from the image, but as with any learning process I was able to spot and fix this problem by taking charge of the reflector and finding a more suitable position at a higher angle providing a more natural look before continuing with the shoot.

Despite my earlier preparation in bringing the reflector in the first place (which was a win!) something I had not counted on was using it and considering that I would need someone or something to hold it for me. Unfortunately, P couldn't join us for the rest of the shoot, which meant some creative use of neighboring surfaces was required. In the future, I will have to recruit someone to assist on similar shoots by taking on this role freeing my attention to the actual shooting. When P left to go about his day, I was able to prop the reflector on the café furniture to finish this set which was ok, but would have been better if it was being held from an elevated position. It's true what they say, every day is a school day, and it's these mistakes are the best learning opportunities I could ask for.

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Followers of my work will probably notice that I do not do a lot of portrait work, in fact up until this point I had done virtually none, so my next hurdle. I'm not going to dress it up, I have no idea how to direct people for portraits and it makes me feel really itchy just thinking about it. The situational portraits captured here weren't a problem and these fell into place with some small direction of model and props. Naturally, I was shooting in short bursts capturing the subtle differences in facial expression, always looking for a natural smile with bright wide eyes rather than a posed false grin.

When it came to the tight portraits it was a different story, with no other distraction from the main subject expression is everything. This in mind, I would do everything to make Sam laugh or smile, which isn't too difficult, and direct her gaze in different directions trying different poses which worked out quite well. Looking back now, I wonder if some framed shots with Sam adjusting her hair might have worked well, but I was always conscious of not wanting to make this look like a magazine glamour shoot (definitely not my thing!).

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Shooting with the Sony 24-240mm between 70-100mm at around f/5.6 proved to be an outstanding choice for these shots. Until now I didn't think I would get such incredible detail from this standard lens which I had been considering upgrading. It isn't the best lens for portrait work and I will eventually seek the 85mm or new 135mm G Master for portraits, but as this is not a priority for me at the moment and clearly my current lens is capable of delivering so, for now, I am happy to keep this lens in my suite.

The eye tracking on the A7iii really came into its own here, but did struggle with the low light and sometimes missed the closest and better-composed eye for the brighter eye, which at this shallow depth of field did mean some images weren't quite perfect, but these were few in the grand scheme. Bizarrely I also opted for single instead of continuous focus and held the focus between bursts which did mean that the sharpness slipped at times. With such subtle changes in the focus, it was difficult to see this mistake on the LCD when glancing quickly between shots in the super bright sunlight. 

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Switching to my trusty 50mm 1.8 we set up at one of the tables for a few more situational portraits to add some variety to the shoot. This is a great lens, and I really don't utilize it enough, mainly because for portraits you have to get too close to the subject in order to fill the frame which can be awkward if you don't know the person you are shooting all that well. Hence the reason for looking into the lenses mentioned earlier. 

It would have been really tempting to shoot wide open for these shots and totally isolate the subject from the background, but as these were more of a situational portrait I thought it best to retain some detail and invite the viewer to take in more of the surroundings, but apply enough focus blur so as to provide some isolation. 

On we go! 

With a solid set of shots from the café, it was time to head over to location no. 2, jumping in the car and sticking the roof down it was a glorious day to be zipping around taking in some sun and fresh air. Unfortunately, we didn't have too far to go until we got to our next stop, Sam's, friend's mum's house; a beautifully presented residence like it was out of a home and garden catalog. Another great choice that I can take absolutely no credit for! (same goes for the photo opposite) 

On arrival, we were greeted with warm welcomes and were shown around possible locations for the shoot by Cheryl, our fabulous host for the afternoon who was very happy to see Sam and excited to see how we had got on earlier. We opted for the conservatory to start as this was a nice size, very well presented and very bright being all glass, despite the sun being around the front of the house. 

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Whilst Sam went for another outfit change, I went about checking the light meter in various spots and looking for scenes that would make for good positions for the coming shots. I was faced here with a similar problem to that of the cafe, only this time the light was strong, but not directly into the conservatory, so it needed to be directed back in to boost the highlights and lift shadows and inject some life into my shots. 

Cheryl was most amenable and helped in every way she could and invited us to turn her perfectly arranged abode into a photo studio, giving us free rein to move furniture around as we saw fit. Utilizing the bar top and one of the wicker chairs, which complimented Sam's current choice of wardrobe proved excellent choices to mix up the selection and add variety to the shoot. I did invite Cheryl to join in by holding the reflector, which she was happy and enthusiastic about doing, but did find it challenging, hell, I don't blame her. I had only used it for the first time only 3 hours ago! 

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Having made the most of the conservatory Cheryl informed us of a desk setup towards the front of the house, which seemed like a good opportunity to get some 'working' poses. Despite the strong light on the front of the house, the light here was pretty difficult to catch, and it was equally challenging trying to capture something that didn't look too cheesy and posed. Then it was straight out into the garden to get some relaxed portrait shots in the dazzling sun before lunch.

Now in the garden with a textured backdrop and more light than I could possibly ever need shooting was a lot easier, but this time it was Sam that was struggling. Naturally, I wanted to ensure I eliminated any shadows across her face, but at the same time, the sun was so bright and dazzling that it was causing her to have to either squint or run the risk of blindness! 

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As with anything in photography, there is a trade-off, in this case, I moved Sam around to one side a little to prevent to direct sunlight from causing her to squint in favor of a little shadow across the face which I attempted to soften with the reflector. The results, clean inviting portraits with a little shadow which add character. With that, it was off to the pub for a spot of grub. 

I did have some reservations surrounding this shoot; it's not what I do and I do feel the pressure in these situations, but up until now everything had gone exceptionally well and we reflected over a bite to eat in a local pub. Sam was relaxed and enjoying herself, and I had lost all feelings of anxiety and reassured with the shots captured thus far. We didn't have time to get too relaxed though, as we had one more location to get to before sunset

The short winter days do mean an early sunset, so we were up against the clock. Our final destination was a local common, one we used to visit back when we were kids many years ago. I had forgotten about this place, with its sweeping sun-drenched fields and meadows spotted with interesting old trees. We took the opportunity to take a walk along and scout possible locations and generally have a catch-up, enjoying the sunshine. 

I did struggle to find somewhere that would suit the loose brief that we were working to, there were plenty of opportunities, but the common was particularly busy with walkers taking advantage of the beautiful day. But time was running away, and fast. As the sky turned to gold we found a really interesting tree bathed in the warm glow of golden hour and took to some shooting. 

And that was that the sun swiftly took to its bed and the day was done. We wrapped up the shoot, but my work wasn't finished, and my challenges were not over!

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Back to the 6 Cave!

So the shoot went well, as good as I could have imagined, but the work wasn't over. Being very mindful of the requirements for these images I couldn't go steaming in with my usual post-processing style, lots of contrast and saturation and a moody feel. No, this would not do for the face of SPD tuition. So I had to pull back and provide more of a brighter inviting feel. 

With the extreme changes in settings and lighting, the color temperature was most crucial and had to be paid close attention to. Of course, I needed a warm color on the skin, but I didn't want the whole scene to be too warm an unnatural looking.

Now, Sam is a glamorous girl and doesn't require a lot of work, but as with any portrait, there are adjustments to be made. This really pushed me into some new areas of editing. For instance, in some of the portrait shots, the color rendering left a red patch of skin on her forehead, which wasn't visible to the eye and had to be fixed. I achieved this with the brush tool in Lightroom and fine-tuning the color temperature and tint until the skin tone was corrected.Despite having pretty shiny white pears, the warm color temperature turned her teeth into that of a 60-a -day smoker. No serious problem here, as there is a preset in Lightroom for this very issue. 

This process took far longer than I normally expect to take because fo the importance of these shots to Sam's new venture, it took me a long time to sign off on them and be happy with the final results. Even as I write this I have been dipping in and out fine-tuning the shots, but this time must come to an end before I end up overdoing and being trapped in a never-ending cycle. 

So it's time to sign off, thanks to Sam for placing her trust in me to deliver these important images, and for the fun day!

Until next time guys!


For more information about SPD Tuition & Coaching click here.

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