Portraits: Natural and Flash

· 26.April.2015

As a commercial portrait photographer, I shoot a lot of “Real People Portraits” for business and editorial clients. Recently I had the opportunity to photography the barbers at Rocco’s Barber shop in Scituate, MA, where I live. Rocco is gone now, and Frank has taken over as the owner with a great cast of characters working the scissors. This is a small town hangout, everyone goes there and even when there is a waiting line, all the customers have a great time with the friendly and lively banter between all the people. They needed new photos for their website and I was happy to help out. I used two lenses on the Fuji XT1, my newly acquired 16-55mm f 2.8 and my trusty 56mm f 1.2.

This first shot is done natural light, ISO 1250 f 4 at 1/75 with the 16-55 f 2.8 lens, auto white balance. This is just the establishing shot so you can get an idea of the small and chaotic shop. Frank is the main character and always full of fun and jokes.


The place is busy, both with customers and clutter and the challenge is to find some simple background that still tells the story. I was eager to use the new 16-55 2.8 and put it to the challenge. Whenever I shoot business portraits, I try and create a look and feel that carries across all the images. I wanted to show some humor and asked the barbers to hold their instruments as well as just do some nice headshots.

One of my favorite ways to create a natural looking light is by bouncing my portable flash (Fuji EF 42 with Phottix Ares triggers) into a white board that is about 30 x 40 inches. That turns a tiny light source into a large, soft and bounced light that has a beautiful smooth quality. I can position it where I want by clamping it to a stand and putting the flash on another stand, place far enough away to fully illuminate the board. Bounced light spreads out and covers a large area with a very gradual fall off on the background. It’s almost indistinguishable from natural light.

All the images were shot at around f 2.8 or f 3.2 and the focal length was between 45mm and 55 mm. I used the flash bounced into the white card and the shutter speed was Fuji’s sync speed of 1/180 to eliminate any of the natural light and odd color from the overhead fluorescents. My white balance was set on daylight. I wanted the background to be softly out of focus but have just enough sharpness to identify “barber shop”.

First up is Luigi, the bald barber with the fabulous smile and great attitude.





I did a few photos of each barber holding their instruments, just to be a little funny.

Next up is Joe, who always has a joke, and makes fun of EVERYONE! His clients are always laughing with his sharp wit and insight. Surprisingly, he was a little shy in front of the camera, but I joked with him and he loosened up.





Rocco’s has one “lady barber”, Lori and she cuts both men and women’s hair, as well as kids. Each barber has their own devoted clientele, but many customers are happy with the first available chair. Lori is really lovely, great eyes, and also a little uncomfortable at first but was totally cooperative. We had fun and a good connection.


Frank was really busy but such a great character. He was laughing and mugging which was entertaining the customers, but not necessarily good for the photographs. I waited till he didn’t have a waiting line anymore and was able to get some authentic expressions from him.


Notice the old cash register behind him. That’s what they still use, no computers!


I was happy with the results in capturing the personalities and the feeling of the shop. The 16-55mm was tack sharp wide open, with a wonderful bokeh that still rendered the background sharp enough to recognize the barber shop accessories.

Personally, I LOVE working natural light and shooting wide open, so once I shot all the above images, I decided to just do a few more using just the window light. ISO is set to 400, all images shot at f 1.2, white balance is still daylight. Shutter speed varied according to how close I had them to the window, but was around 1/500. The bokeh is gorgeous and I love the way it renders, so beautiful and impressionistic. The creamy skin tones are from the large window and the light is flattering. However, with the background that out of focus, you can’t tell where you are. The quality of these images is wonderful, but it doesn’t tell the story, so it’s important to use the tools that are appropriate for the point of the photos.


Just as I was packing up and getting ready to leave, this little boy came in for his first hair cut! He was not happy at all! All natural light, wide open at f 1.2.