Anatomy of an Indoor Portrait Shoot

Author: Ken Brown

It’s Summer in Arizona, so although I have done it, it’s a bit too hot outside for a Portrait shoot.  I’d like to use this Blog to describe the mechanics of an Indoor Portrait Shoot session we held.  It was for a Meet-up event, but I approached it the same way I would any Portrait session, and there’s a lot to making one of these successful !!

My Location
I have had an idea in the back of my mind for a couple of years (it’s good to catalog your ideas – you’ll use them eventually), and that was to do something in a bar.  I like the backgrounds, the ambiance, the possible props, and the posing opportunities available to use with a model.  Fortunately I had a contact at Desert Eagle Brewing on Main Street in Mesa, and when I asked them about using their interior on a quiet Summer night, they were all in.  Although I had been there before, I next visited the location, “per-visualizing” how I would do the shoot.  Where I would position the model, what I would use as backgrounds, where and how I would use my lighting and run my power lines for the lights.
Here is a “before” picture I shot of the bar, just with my cellphone about a week before the shoot.
The existing setup was pretty good for a start, but there were a number of things I wanted to modify.
What I wanted to keep:

  • I decided to use the right side of the bar.  I liked the Route 66 sign and the rack of bar glasses
  • I liked the Coke Machine
  • I like the bar taps

What I wanted to eliminate:

  • I didn’t like the TV to the right of the Route 66 sign
  • Right below the Route 66 sign was a Bar license certificate that would be a distraction
  • On the bar rack with glasses, there were a bunch of glasses stuffed with napkins

I pre-visualized two main shoot angles.  The model would be positioned at the bar, and I could see using the Route 66 sign and the bar taps as a background.  I could also see switching shooting angles and using the bar rack and glasses.

Here is my sketch of what I wanted to keep (check marks), what I wanted to eliminate (circled), and how I wanted to position my shot angles.
It’s nice if we can work with the existing environment, but one of the jobs of the photographer is to create the environment.  In this case, it meant doing something about the background elements I didn’t like.

  • Eliminating the napkin stuffed glasses were easy.  I just asked the bartender to remove them, and replace them with more empty glasses or bottles.  No problem – they were happy to help.  We also removed all other distracting elements – the little signs on  top of the bar, the stacks of napkins, a few other items you can’t see in the background.  Control the image and background– It’s your job.
  • Covering the TV and the bar certificate.  I make a habit of going to antique shops, remnant shops, and have a few favorites.  I quick trip let me find the perfect coverings – a U.S. Flag and a small patriotic looking banner.  Once again, the bar didn’t mind that I do some temporary coverings with push pins.  I always bring pins, tape,  and plastic clamps.  You can cover just about anything with these.  You’ll see the results in the images to follow !

Based on where I wanted to position my model, and the two different shooting angles I had in mind, I decided to use two lights with softboxes to get the effect I was looking for.  For this, given the need to shoot rather quickly with a big group of people, I wanted the model just evenly lit.  I used a third light with a long throw reflector to provide all the background light – to light up the background and the side bar rack.  For a different shot, I also had in mind moving the background light behind the model, to provide some good lens flare and create some back lighting on the model.

My Model
There are a variety of resources to use for finding a model.  In this case, I used a website (I’m a member) called Model Mayhem.  It’s a great resource for finding a variety of talent – models, hair and makeup artists, set designers, costumers, image editors, and more.  After finding a model on MM, I chatted with her about target outfits.  I sent her some photos, just finding them through simple google searches, of the types of outfits I was interested in.  She shared some ideas with me, and we decided to go with two outfits – a red cocktail dress, and a jeans/midriff outfit.  Two different, but good looks for her.  I also told her that I would be using a model photo release form – this is pretty standard, and you can google search this also and find several good ones.  We negotiated an acceptable fee, and lastly we arranged a time for her to be on set.
As it turned out, we also ended up with a male model joining in the shoot.  That was a last minute call – a friend of my assistant on the shoot.  He was just getting started as a model, and was happy to help out and participate.  We of course had him also sign the release forms.

Parameters of the Shoot
I arrived about 90 minutes before the shoot to set up my lighting, prepare my background, and to take some trial images.  I wanted to be all set when the model, and all the Meet-up participants, showed up.  I positioned and targeted my lights to get her evenly lit, roughly planning to shoot at ISO 200, 1/200th of a second, and f11.  I used a main light (36×48 softbox) and a fill light (24×36 softbox), each positioned about 10-12 feet from the model.  I positioned my backdrop light far enough back to get the coverage I was looking for, at about 1-2 stops below my main light.  I wanted to use this difference in foreground versus background lighting to create some separation and give a nice multidimensional effect.
Here’s an image with one of our participants shooting, in this case our male model.
You can see the two black softboxes, and should just be able to make out the backdrop light close to the wall.

Now the results !
bar7Here are a few images from the shoot.  You can see how I’ve used the two different angles I had pre-visualized.  The Route 66 sign, with my added U.S. Flag and small patriotic-looking banner.

You can also see the coke machine with it’s own lighting   as well as the bar taps.  There’s one of my male bar5model as well using just the modeling lights, at a higher ISO setting in the camera.

These shots would not be nearly the same with a TV in the background and that white Bar License certificate.
Once everyone in our Meet-up had a chance to shoot with this setup, I moved the background light on the other side of the bar to create backlight on the model and to flare into the lens for a more edgy look.  All in all bar6a GREAT shoot.  Our Meet-Up participants had a great time and got some excellent images.  You can see how I use the bar rack and glasses for this shot.  She was also happy to get up on the bar.  A great angular look for our bar4model !
Keys to success – An interesting location, pre-visualize the shoot, control the background, preset your shooting angles, prepare with the model ahead of time, great lighting.


Ken Brown is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.