Guest Tip – Behind the Scenes with L.A. Photographer Patrick Shipstad

patrick_about01 Patrick is a professional photographer based in Los Angeles, with a background in music composition, sound design and video production. His work has an emphasis on creative portraits, beauty and fashion as well as product and family photography. For personal work, he loves shooting landscape, macro and experimental photo processes.

So this is happening more and more…I’m talking with a client who wants me to shoot a creative portrait of them, and they say, “I like your blurry photos…I want that.” My blurry photos? Most of the time that’s not something a photographer wants to hear…but I know they’re referring to the shots I’ve done over the years with the Lensbaby creative effects lenses.

I’ve been shooting studio portraits with them for a long time now and there’s nothing quite like them. It takes practice—some trial and error to learn the idiosyncrasies. And with lots of lens kits, focal options, etc., their product line now has a very comprehensive set of tools and it continues to grow (yay, more toys! err…I mean tools).

My favorite Lensbaby combination is the Composer Pro with the Double Glass Optic. I think it gives the greatest variable from beautiful blurry, smeared edges to a crystal clear focus area. If you’re not familiar with Lensbaby, it should be noted that as of this blog post, there is no auto focus available with any of the Lensbaby lenses. That’s where a lot of the technique and fun comes in. You actually “perform” your focus area by moving the lens around.

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One quick sidebar about the styling of the photos. I go to craft stores, thrift shops, costume shops, Amazon, etc., and find little elements to throw into pictures. It takes very little to change the vibe of a photo. In the shot with my model, Galadriel Stineman (green flower and twig wreath on her head), that’s nothing more than a four dollar wreath I bought on sale at a fabric shop. As for the “Game of Thrones” looking shot— black gloves from my wardrobe stash, a $12 short black tutu from Amazon (around model Rose Bachtel’s neck) and the crown is something found on Amazon for $15. Easy breezy. They do their own make-up, and we’re good to go!

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OK, let’s talk about these images. My setups for these photos are pretty simple, using one or two lights with reflectors. For the shot with the green wreath headdress, I used two lights. I have a medium soft box horizontal above and between myself and Galadriel, and it’s positioned just a little off to the right to avoid flat lighting her too much. Taking it a bit off center of the model gives a slight shadow on her nose and some depth to the lighting.

There is a piece of white foam core at chest level to bounce back light under the chin and to fill in some shadows. And then there is a 7” parabolic with a 40° grid spot on the olive green velvety background. The grid creates a controlled throw of light giving a natural, in-camera vignetting of the backdrop. I’m careful to place the circle of light directly behind her, otherwise the halo of light isn’t symmetrical to the model. In general, when it’s off center to the model’s head, it gives the shot an unbalanced look.

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For the other setup with the crown, I tried a different approach using only one light. I’ve been wanting to use my huge Paul C. Buff 86” PLM Umbrella (with a diffusion sock). Now I could do it the easy way and throw one of my White Lightening strobes in there and be done with it. Or I could experiment (as I like to do) and see what it would look like if I rigged an Alien Bee Ring Flash (ABR 800) into it.

I thought it might throw a wider, more even light into the umbrella vs. a regular strobe. I’ll have to do some tests to check the softness between different lights in that PLM, but for now, I’m just telling you what I used. It did take a considerable amount of grip hardware to get it rigged into there but hey, I’m putting something in there that it wasn’t designed for! Needless to say, a regular strobe would have worked just fine.

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I placed the PLM as close as I could to Rose’s right (camera left) and a little above eye level. I moved it around looking at the light and shadows from the modeling light on her face till I found the right spot. For some fill light on the other side, I again bounced the light off a large white foam core board. But I was getting a bright white reflection on the front of the silver crown. I need fill, but I have a reflective surface I need to consider…hmm.

My solution was to take a piece of black lace and hang it over the white foam core. Now the board wasn’t pure white. The lace dulled the white reflection on the crown so it wasn’t full black. The foam core was still filling the shadows on the other side of the PLM. Yay, problem solved! As you would expect, layering the lace had an effect on the amount of fill light the white board provided. I’ll definitely be using that lace diffusion technique again. The reason I was able to use only one light is because I positioned Rose close to the backdrop. That huge 86″ light source spilled onto the background and kicked enough light to the reflector.

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The size and proximity of the PLM to the model and background created beautiful, soft light everywhere. One thing I always do when using the Lensbaby is focus on the model’s eyes with the assist of a flashlight. Maybe it’s just my eyes, but looking through the camera with the model far away, I have a hard time seeing if my focus is tack sharp. Next time I’m going to use the camera’s live view via the iPad to get a bigger, closer focus reference. That may do the trick.

First I apologize to the model that I need to do it, but they’re always cool with it. I shine the light at their face, making sure I’ve tilted my Lensbaby to lock the focus area to their eyes and look for that sparkle while adjusting the focus manually. When I see that sparkle, I know I have it. I quickly turn away the flashlight and click. One nice side effect of doing that is when a bright light is shined in our eyes, our pupils get smaller, making the iris bigger, so you see more of the model’s eye color when the flash goes off. Pretty sweet.

FYI, I used the f/8 aperture ring with the Double Glass Optic. At the distance I’m shooting, that focal length gives a wide enough field of focus to get the model’s face and shoulders sharp before fading off into that beautiful blurry look my clients specifically asked for. Because the aperture ring of the Lensbaby dictates what f-stop the camera needs to be set, I shot in manual mode (ISO 100, f/8, 160th).

I wirelessly triggered the lights via White Lightening transmitter and receivers. I also use the iPad tethered wirelessly to a Camranger on top of my Canon 5D MKIII. I can check critical focus on the iPad which is much easier than zooming in on the LCD or using a loop with the LCD. The Camranger/iPad combo has been a huge asset in working with clients and models and I can remotely trigger the camera for some shots that I wouldn’t have been able to do without that combo. Love, love, love it!

As for the post processing of these images, that could be a whole other article in itself. Basically, I’ve really been getting into adding a little desaturation to the photos by combining a low opacity black and white layer on top of the colored layers and doing my color toning with non-destructive, channel based curve adjustments. Basically, shifting the color tone of the highlights and shadows within the different color channels using the curves tool. It’s really just about playing around until I find something I like.

Thanks so much for your time to read all this. Still want more? Then head on over to my site, www.patrickshipstad.com to see more shots done with the Lensbaby system and be sure to visit the blog page to find links to other articles. All photos © 2014 Patrick Shipstad

Models: Galadriel Stineman and Rose Bachtel.