Beginner Starting out with portraits... advice welcome!

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4,215
Name
Paul
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#1
I didn't want to put this in the critique section as I feel like I'm still too early in my photography and "new". But I am after some pointers and suggestions. I have very thick skin so please do not hold back...

Right, I'd like to think I'm getting the hang of controlling my camera and I'm now spending more time thinking about composition, "message" and content of my photos than the mechanical process of actually taking a photo. One exception to this is using the flash, when I have a load more things I need to think about and plan... but I am only three months in to DSLR photography!

Another thing I'm struggling with, especially for portraits is the relative exposure of the face versus the rest of the scene. I realise there are styles out there which overexpose skin tones almost to the point of blowing out. I'm not aiming for this, but I do quite like what I'd describe as a "studio effect" and is what I've been aiming for with both my shots and my PP. I'd very much like others' views on this though.

Below is a snapshot (I describe it as that, because that's what it is, rather than a carefully posed and lit headshot) - from today. It was part of a series but the one which captured the expression I preferred. My biggest questions thought are more about the technicals and PP effect (which I try to keep relatively light touch). I realise the composition is far from perfect - the subject being in a "jumperoo" certainly didn't help, but losing her left hand isn't ideal. Feel free to critique this if there are simple improvements I could have made... I took the shot with a moderate telephoto (about 120mm on an crop DSLR) and pulled back slightly to get marginally more context whilst avoiding some of the more distracting elements of the jumperoo contraption.



So, details:

EXIF should be available but explanation as follows:
1/180 as I wanted the flash to be the primary light source and, critically, I wanted the background to blacken (that is my camera's max flash sync speed).
f/5.6 because I wanted more than just her eyes in focus and because she was bouncing up and down it would have been a lot tricker at f/2.8! I'm particularly pleased that of all the shots I took, about 90% were pretty much bang in focus (this is actually one of the slightly weaker ones re: focus, but I preferred the expression). What I was less pleased with was forgetting to check my ISO which was at 1600 for the first batch (subsequently reduced to 400 for this)
Scene was metering about -4EV without flash (I think)
Flash was bounced from the upper wall/ceiling in front of her right shoulder, aimed between her and me. Catchlights suggest to me I probably aimed the flash a bit too high. There was a window behind me which probably helped fill in some shadows and meant I could get away just using the one flash on camera.

PP details (Lightroom):
WB to flash
Exposure tweaked slightly +.1EV
Contrast +15
Highlights -24
White point +60
Black point -17
Vibrance +15
HSL Luminance: Red+22, Orange+20, Yellow+50 (I use these as "starting point" skin tone adjustments but can cause problems with pink & yellow clothing)
A couple of graduated filters to bring down the highlights on the arms (I think the side effects of this are pretty obvious if you're looking for them) but her pink top was too bright otherwise
I spot removed a touch but didn't skin smooth as I don't think babies need it, TBH. I did enhance eyes and lips a touch.

Original RAW file here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/92g0b4fxdbv5o3x/20140504-IMGP9298-fl122.5%20mm-ISO%20400-exp1-180%20sec%20at%20%C6%92%20-%205.6-bias-1%20EV.DNG

Any suggestions on improvements (technical, PP or otherwise)? I do like the output, but I'm really struggling to know what to do differently in order to get something better... I need some guidance as I know it can be better this very amateurish attempt!

Thanks in advance.
 
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23,194
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Phil
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#2
What I find interesting, and without further detail I'll leave you to think about.

There's hundreds of words there, including great detail about the PP process. Yet you've given no details of your lighting (not the same thing as exposure). I suggest 'The speedlighters handbook' by Syl Arena as a great introduction to using your flashgun.

In short; you've admitted you didn't give enough thought to the composition, and now you've realised you gave very little thought to the lighting. You might just have been putting all your effort into the wrong place.

On the plus side, you've caught a gorgeous expression.
 
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pjm1
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4,215
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Paul
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#3
Hi Phil V - thanks for the feedback. You're absolutely right that I spent too little time on both the lighting and the composition. The latter, I will excuse myself for (a bit) as it was a fast-moving object and I was struggling to capture her head in frame as it was (this tells me I need to change that and get her stationary before I try to take photos!). The latter I have no excuse for because I choose the lighting in these circumstances.

Having said that, I did think about where it would be coming from and what effect that would (should?) have on the photo. I also thought about the light levels on different parts of the image - the face versus the background, but certainly only spent once short sentence talking about it in my description... I guess that highlights where my real focus is and isn't though. What you're telling me - I think - is that I need a lot more focus and thought on that before even turning my camera on. That's very helpful and thanks also for the book suggestion... I'll take a look.

Up until now, I've been getting a lot of my information re: lighting from Neil Van Niekirk's Tangents blog as well as the Strobist 101 website. I found both hugely helpful and interesting, but I've clearly not taken enough in from them! I think that demonstrates there's a big difference between information (or raw data/description) and putting it into practice. I need the latter...
 
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pjm1
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4,215
Name
Paul
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#4
I suggest 'The speedlighters handbook' by Syl Arena as a great introduction to using your flashgun.
I've just had a quick look for that book on Amazon and saw it had the subtitle "Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites"... Now the first bit of that is precisely what I need, but I'm a bit concerned he'll be focusing on how to do things just for Canon. Now, I know it should be a simple matter of translation between TTL systems but am I running the risk of confusing myself, especially given different camera/TTL systems have different ways of being set up?

I use Pentax and I know the Pentax TTL system is somewhat unreliable when it comes to bounce flash (which is 99% of what I use). So, I wouldn't want to rely on a formulaic approach which works reliably on one camera system but will fail when applied to mine (I've been led to believe that Pentax TTL consistently overexposes on bounce flash when using certain focal lengths...)

In the meantime, I'll work my way back through NVN's Tangents blogs - I like his style of presentation and explanation so I'll also look into his On Camera Flash book as well.

Unless anyone has other suggestions? One of the big things I'm struggling with, to be honest, is what sort of exposure and shadow is "right" for faces. I could post a montage of 20 pictures of a static subject taken with different flash angles, strengths etc. but not know which is technically "better". Are there any guides or resources out there which might help? Aside from simple rules of thumb such as two raised flashes each at 45 degrees, 2:1 ratio, narrow lighting...?
 
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23,194
Name
Phil
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#5
The book is the best source there is for lighting with speedlights IMO, the Canon specifics are only about the controls of the speedlights themselves, the principles of lighting are universal.

Other great books are 'the hotshoe diaries' by Joe McNally, he has a quirky style, and the technical specifics are Nikon centric (doesn't alter a thing), and 'Light, Science and Magic' which although it mentions lighting gear, labours the point that whether your light source is a speedlight, studio head or the sun, the principles are the same.
 
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