Last weekend I did a photo shoot for the young Italian actress Barbara Novara. She wanted to update her photo book and look as natural as possibile in the images. It was for this reason that we decided to work outdoors with natural light. I checked the weather forecast and Saturday turned out to be the best option.
I love taking portraits with natural light. Walking around the city, hunting down an interesting angle or a fleeting slice of light cutting across the pavement is an adventure of sorts, a treasure hunt for the light-hungry photography.
All I brought with me was a circular Lastolight reflector. No strobes, no additional lights. It was the perfect opportunity to work with the new full-frame Sony A7 and the Zeiss Sonnar T FE 55mm f/1.8. I also managed to borrow a Leica M Summicron 90mm f/2 since I still have my M to Nex adapter. The 55mm is a wonderful lens but to take good close-ups, a more traditional portrait focal length is advisable so as to avoid any distortion on the subject’s face.
Working with ambient light means working in a less-controlled environment. It can be very satisfying but also presents some challenges, especially when you are taking portraits, because you want to make sure enough light hits the person’s face even in not-so-perfect conditions. That is where the reflector can come in handy. One of my favorite kinds of shots involves using a backlight, where the reflector is used to bounce part of that light back onto the subject.
In other cases, I just look for a softly-lit environment like the interior of an arcade. If there is enough light outside, the light filtered through the transparent roof or entries can create a low-contrast atmosphere that can be very pleasant.
During the time we were outside, the sun was starting to set and that meant having some of the best light to work with for portraits. In this case, you need to work quickly as it will only last a couple of hours.
The main thing to be careful of is unwanted shadows on the face, as they can look natural to the eye at first glance but are less attractive when you review the pictures afterwards. Often it is simply a matter of making the subject pose in the right way and having her look in the most appropriate and flattering direction.
This photo shoot was the perfect opportunity to see how good the A7 is in terms of image quality. The raw files are no less than exceptional to work with. While I generally didn’t apply a huge amount of post-processing to these images, I often had to play with light and exposure in order to place her expression at the centre of attention. The dynamic range of the A7 is so vast that I can easily work with Lightroom and masks. Recovering highlights or opening the shadows was very easy with zero loss of quality. I worked with the colours rendered by the standard Adobe profile instead of the Sony profiles, as I found them too contrasted in this case. For some shots, I used the ever-perfect Rebecca Lily Pro Set II profiles which, while designed for the Fujifilm RAF files, work perfectly well with other raw files as well. They are especially helpful with the skin tone rendering.
The Zeiss FE 55mm just might be the best lens I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. The sharpness at f/1.8 simply blew me away.
Coupled with the A7, I get all the details I could possibly need, perhaps even too many. This is just another confirmation that I don’t need the A7r. The Sony A7 is not the perfect camera but I must say that the image quality it can generate with this lens is second-to-none in the mirrorless segment (with the exception of the A7r, of course).
I didn’t enjoyed this shoot just for the light or the gear. It was a purely fun afternoon. Barbara was very friendly and easy to work with. There was almost an instantaneous positive feeling between us. Heather helped me with the reflector and also took some shots on her own with the Olympus Pen E-P5 and M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8.
It was almost like a walk downtown with friends, not just a run-of-the-mill work assignment.
This is perhaps the most important aspect to consider when engaging in portrait or street work. Photography is also about human contact, and our session with Barbara is one of the best examples I’ve come across so far in my time as a photographer.
We actually enjoyed it so much that we extended the shoot to night shots as well, something that wasn’t planned at the beginning. Of course working with ambient light at night becomes even more challenging. The colours can be hard to post-process, as the skin tones tend to take on that yellowish palette typical of artificial light. This is where a B&W conversion can be a good solution.
As with the sunset shots, it was again a matter of finding the right spot with the right source of light, coming for a window shop or street lamp for example. In the end, there was no dearth of light sources to experiment with.
I really want to thank Heather and Barbara for this lovely afternoon. I would have no problem signing up for another 365 days of portrait work if it always reached that level of fun.
Also make sure to stay tuned on MirrorLessons because the full Sony A7 review is imminent! 🙂