Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Anatomy of a lifestyle photography session

I have received numerous emails asking me to expand more on some of the lifestyle shooting techniques I use. There is so much going into such a shooting that a single blog post is never going to be able to make a dent in the subject, but in this one I tried to present an overview with samples from a recent studio lifestyle session with three models. Next summer I will be heading a one-week workshop on available light lifestyle and location shooting at the Charleston Photography Workshops. Our studio stylist, Janet, will be with me to help provide a complete overview of a shooting from soup to nuts, and the participants will be able to apply these techniques themselves in the hands-on shooting sessions with models on location.

The real trick to successful lifestyle photography is infusing the images with energy. This is often easier said than done. Typical lifestyle situations portray rather ordinary situations making it difficult to maintain a level of excitement. If the models go too far with their expressions, the scene reads as false. If the expressions are tuned too far down, the scenes read as banal. A lot of elements need to work together to get just the right mix.

The entire shooting is scripted ahead of time so the stylist can prepare the scenes in a way that makes it easy to flow from one to the other. We work in two separate studios so several of the sets can be prepped ahead of time. The sets are designed to be put up and dismantled quickly. Model time is at a premium so we do not want to waste it by assembling sets the day of the shoot.

Keeping the models moving helps to constantly refresh the scene and expressions and avoids static poses. I usually put my models in a loop by having them repeat a simple action over and over, and timing my shot for the peak moment. This means keeping the camera in continuous auto-focus mode with a focus point placed on the face or eye of the model. I now use the Fuji X-T1 in addition to my normal lifestyle workhorse camera, the Nikon D4. The X-T1 has focus points stretching out to the very edges of the viewing frame making it easier to maintains a composition when the models faces are not in the general central area.

Styling is very important in creating a believable scene that does not over-power the main action. Almost all of our lifestyle scenes are done in a studio with sets. Creating a sense of depth adds to the realism of the shot. We do this by dressing up both foreground and background areas that are then thrown out of focus. Generally, I work with fast aperture f/1.4 lenses and use them fairly wide open depending upon my distance from the models. The closer I am, the more I stop down the aperture to compensate for the loss of depth of field due to closer focus.

I have two f/2.8 zooms for the Nikon, the 24-70mm and 70-200mm, and rely mostly on the latter, especially outdoors. Indoors, I prefer to use 85mm, 50mm, and 35mm f/1.4 lenses. I find the shorter focal lengths used in close add more realism to the scene because they place the viewer in a more friendly viewing position close to the subjects.

Yesterday, we did a lifestyle shoot using three actors. I prefer using actors because they are more convincing in their roles as real people. Below are some of the scenes from the day. All were taken with the Nikon D4 and Fuji X-T1. I am showing several images from each scene to illustrate how a situation is worked to pick up some variety.

A tungsten hair light provides the warm toned separating color on the right side of the models and adds the warm bokeh effects in the out of focus foreground glassware I used to frame the scene. I kept the overall tone on the models on the warm side to mimic the type of light naturally found in a cafe setting. This was taken with the D4 and 85mm lens set to f/2. 

The models need to look like they are actually talking. I have them repeat the same thing over and over, something with an "aye" sound, like "say", "hay", "cay". This sound parts the teeth and lips while allowing for various expressions at the same time. The sounds can be said while smiling, serious, stressed, etc. Controlling what the models say insures a good expression in the mouth, and results in a greater number of successful shots from each scene. Having them talk instead of just sit there adds realism to the scene.

What is out of focus becomes as important as what is in focus. I often work very close to shoot past a foreground part of the scene and throw it very out of focus. The background is also kept intentionally soft, identifiable as a place but not distracting by being too specific. When I have several models to work with I sometimes throw some of them considerably out of focus by shooting past them in the foreground, or using them as out-of-focus elements in the background. These out of focus areas tend to add a sense of depth to the images.

This shows the entire set for the hospital scene. Judicious arrangement of the elements and models coupled with a carefully placed focus plain and selective focus goes far to give the final impression of complexity from a simple set. 
The office series below was done in our second studio which faces north and has very little window light. Here I fill the foreground with large silver/gold mix reflectors to bounce some of the light back. Even with that the light is dark and requires a boost in ISO ranging from 640 on a sunny day to 1600 on an overcast day. This means using cameras with good ability in handling low light. Both the Nikon D4 and Fuji X-series are excellent in this situation.

Although there is a front fill illumination from the reflectors, the overall light is very dim and flat creating difficult auto-focus conditions. I rely heavily on cameras and lenses with the ability to cope. In addition, I apply some shooting techniques to do what I call "bracket focus". Instead of holding down the shutter button and blazing away with continuous auto-focus, I keep hitting the shutter repeatedly to obtain bursts of several shots each time. This forces the camera to refocus the scene each time the shutter is hit. I don't know if this technique has any technical basis, but I have noticed that it does improve the percentage of in-focus images I get from each scene. I always try to keep a single focus point on one of the model's eyes. These scenes are all photographed up close at very wide open apertures. There is no room for error in the focus.

The two windows in the rear are providing the entire northern light illumination for this scene with some help from several very large silver/gold mix reflectors in the front. A norther light tends to have a bluer color temperature than southern exposure where the sunlight is direct. In many of the business scenes I tend to go with the cooler blue color temperature and even enhance it a bit later in post processing. 

I like the way the foreground woman has her hand on her mouth. It is a simple gesture that looks candid. The man in the back is saying an "aye" word to make him look like he is actually speaking. 

The tilt screen on the Fuji X-T1 allows me to quickly place it for a more unusual point of view. In this case I simply held it over my head for a down-angle shot with the 18mm lens used at f/2.8. 
I use daylight for most of my lifestyle shootings. It is much easier to maintain a natural look when the light itself is natural to the scene. I often add a single tungsten lamp in the background acting as a hair light. This adds a warm, sunny tone because its color temperature is much warmer than the actual daylight. Sometimes I use this light with no filtration for full affect. Other times I tone its color down by putting varying degrees of blue color correction gels in front of the light.

Note the slight warming tone on the left rear of the woman's face caused by the tungsten hair light. In addition to adding tone, this light adds sculptural volume and helps separate the subject from the background. 

This shows the makeup of the entire set from which this group of images was taken. Note the 1000 watt hair light in the left rear.  Due to its difference in color temperature, it adds a little warmth to the scene by counter-acting the available daylight used to light the scene. You can see the warmer light on the left side of the models faces in the two shots above this one. In this case the lamp was 1000 watts with no color correction filters. 
The entire lifestyle shoot took three hours. It is nothing short of a miracle that our studio stylist, Janet, is able to assemble these sets and model wardrobe in such a short time. We did a few other situations in addition to the scenes above, and ended up with around 65 unique final images, a relatively high number for such a short time. Image count does go higher when more models are used because we often shift the focus in a scene from one model to another, and this results in extra images.

The series of images above are presented "as is" after working on them in Adobe Camera Raw, where I do most of my post-processing work. Next the images will proceed to Chris, our staff Photoshop guru, for a second layer of editing to clean them up.


  1. One of the best stock articles I have ever read. Fantastic. Thank you.


  2. Replace lifestyle with stock photo