What is a Covid-Friendly Photo Studio?
As professional photographers, we need to keep portrait jobs moving thru our studios no matter what kind of virus heads our way but how to we keep our customers and ourselves safe from Covid and how to we relay that message to our customer base? That's a tall order that we are slowly figuring out and I'm happy to share what I've learned.
Granted, I live in a year-round mild climate (the central coast of California) making it much easier to shoot outdoors, but I do think I could use a different version of my setup back in Chicago with a little creativity. Here's the 6 key components to my work-in-progress here...
- Market "Covid Friendly" photography. I like that phrase "Covid Friendly" because it conveys the message to potential customers that we have adapted to social distancing, mask wearing, hand san bottle placement, contact free interactions all in one phrase. It works well on a social page, website and printed marketing materials. I'm also reaching out to other business owners like my veterinarian who has also been able to continue their daily workflow by using the same Covid protocol we are using and asking him if I can post a nice pet portrait poster with covid friendly text on his wall. He's happy to have the nice photo and to help out.
- Move your studio out of the small camera room. A small, tight space is not what the average customer thinks of what they want "Covid-Friendly" so if you cannot move outdoors like I have, how about moving to a larger room - much larger in fact (think warehouse?)- so the customer can come in for a sitting as if they are locked inside a 9 foot bubble. The only thing my customer touches is the posing stool and the top of my posing table from the time they open their car door on arrival to the time they leave with a smile.
- Use photos to promote you're Covid-Friendly. On my site, I use the term "Experience" to share the Covid era version of getting a portrait, selecting the finals and hopefully buying a print or two. I want them to know they can "enter the new outdoor studio thru our non contact breezeway" to reach the cool outdoor setup, and I want them to know the rest of the process is done online so they can feel safe bring Gramma in for a portrait.
- Control the outdoor / ambient light by using ND filters. Neutral Density filters are tricky to work with but once you get used to the process it's no big deal. I've used plenty of -1 Stop, -3 stops and even -5 stop filters in my past as a commercial photographer, but now that we have sophisticated digital camera systems I find that the "variable" ND filters are the way to go. There are only a few brands of ND filters I have found to be free from color shift and contrast shift problems with the top two being Heliopan and B+W brands. Yep, they are pricey, but they produce the high quality results I am looking for.
- Get comfortable with your Flashmeter. This is where the experienced shooters have an edge. Many of the portrait shooters in my region use only available light for outdoor portraits with maybe an on-camera flash sometimes. I use studio lighting for many outdoor portraits making my work clearly different in the customers eyes and I'll bet only a few of my competitors know how to use a flashmeter to correctly measure light using ND filter setups. Why? Well the first thing we need to do is to use the ND to eliminate the available light, then power up our strobes to compensate for the ND value AND to light our portraits the way we want them. I use a Sekonic L-608 which has a built in Pocket Wizard transmitter and an easy to use "percentage of light" calculator that tells me if the light it measures is made up of say 50% flash and 50% ambient, 80% flash and 20% ambient or if the light is 100% flash and 0% ambient. This is a must-have for using ND filters for outdoor portraits. Many other meters do the same but the high-end Sekonics are very accurate in this department and make lighting like this much easier.
- Mirrorless Cameras have the edge when it comes to putting a 4-6 stop ND filter on the lens because the electronic viewfinder can be easily setup to compensate for it automatically giving you a nice bright preview. The finder in your optical dSLR BTW will be 4-6 stops darker but it will still operate just fine. I also find that mirrorless cameras seem to be able to autofocus thru the NF filters better than dSLR's.
The setup process using ND filters on a mirrorless camera system is pretty straight-forward. I tend to do two different lighting setups in my outdoor studio sessions depending on the subject of course, but they all start with how much available light I need to remove. Cloudy days I only need to remove 2 stops, sunny day's 4-5 stops which is where the variable ND filter pays off. I'll set the ND filter to the desired reduction, tape it down with Gorilla Tape, put for filter comp into my flashmeter by dialing back the ISO, then light the set using my meter. As long as the meter reads 90% - 100% flash, I'm good. You can see the effective ISO and the flash percentage in the upper right corner of the display.
Next step is to pull a Custom White Balance in the camera to fix the color shift presented by the ND, then make a test shot. Keep in mind that I typically shoot in jpeg mode because I do not like to adjust exposure on the computer and using the tools and tips above you too can pull well-lit and perfectly exposed jpegs out of your camera that require no color correction at all. Let the tools do the work! Please reach out if you need any help on this topic and I will post more info as I learn it.