Kristen, a high school senior, poses at her grandparent's house on the evening of 01 September 2011.

Playing catch up here after the wedding, which has put not only my posts, but also most of my editing off by a a couple of weeks. So stepping back in time to early September, this is Kristen’s senior session. And alright, it wasn’t actually a Saturday shoot, but that sounds better than “Thursday Light,” so we’re going to run with it.

Kristen is an award-winning equestrian, so it was no great leap for us to decide that we had to include her horse in the shoot. This was a first for me, since I’ve never before had an animal of any kind take part in a portrait session, much less something as large as a horse. Turns out that it as a lot easier than I expected, at least in terms of logistics.

When we first decided to include the horse in the photos, we assumed that flash wasn’t an option, since not all animals react well to it. And obviously an agitated horse has great potential to upset the entire shoot, in addition to the risk to itself and others. I considered reflectors but finally settled on shooting ambient, at least for the shots with the horse. Since we were working in the evening, with the sun already below the treeline, the light would be manageable.

Kristen, a high school senior, poses at her grandparent's house on the evening of 01 September 2011.

Turns out that I didn’t need to worry – consulting with Kristen and her father at the start of the shoot, they assured me that Kristen’s horse, at least, wasn’t bothered by flashes. So we scrapped the modified plan and went back to shooting Strobist style, with a single YN-460 II mounted to the beauty dish.

The beauty dish has a unique quality of light: it’s harder than an umbrella or softbox, and somewhat more directional, while still softer than bare flash. I’ve always thought of it as a more sculpted, elegant light – and given the name, I assume I’m not the first to feel that way. It’s not the right light for every situation or every subject, at least now when used alone. But in this case, I think it did a great job helping capture Kristen, who is something of a quiet, serious girl.

Kristen, a high school senior, poses at her grandparent's house on the evening of 01 September 2011.

This shoot had another challenge that was a first for me, of a much more delicate nature. Kristen suffers from a visual disability, where her eyes are in near-constant motion and have a hard time focusing and locking onto any particular object. The trouble is, of course, that probably 75% of my usual portrait direction includes some form of, “Hey, that’s great, now try looking right at me. Uh-huh, great, now look to your left, out that way, kind of focus on something distant for a more serious look.”

Obviously that sort of direction wouldn’t work here, which left me struggling throughout the shoot, trying to find a way to give direction that would A) accomplish my photographic goals and, B), not frustrate my subject. I had to rely on more physical direction – turn your body this way, turn your head towards me, etc. In the end, I also relied a little on the “spray and pray” method, ripping off several more shots in each pose than I normally would, to up the odds of catching one where her eyes would be in the proper position.

Sooner or later we are all going to work with a subject who has a disability, so we might as well be prepared. Before the shoot even started, I asked how Kristen wanted to handle it; it was a quick discussion and left everyone with an understanding of how to proceed, and what kind of results we wanted. Yes, it may be a little uncomfortable to bring up, but it’s better to simply do it and be clear.

Kristen, a high school senior, poses at her grandparent's house on the evening of 01 September 2011.

Shooting extra frames took care of the problem in most cases, although there were a few shots, especially close ups, where I used a little Photoshop wizardry to finish them up. In these cases, Kristen’s eyes weren’t aligned quite “normally,” so I simply made a selection around the better aligned of the two, copied it to a new layer, and aligned it atop of the other. Some masking work quickly blended the layers together, with no one being the wiser.

This was session one of two for Kristen – we’ll be shooting the second in the next week or so, now that autumn is here.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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