Autumn Fairy in Noir – making of an impromptu portrait


In this article I hope to pass on some inspiration & tips for producing interesting portraits. This image is not a studio shot, it was taken outside in autumn sunlight with a little fill flash.

One of the great pleasures of working with your enthusiastic & artistic daughter are the impromptu moments of photographic opportunity. Tamsin is an excellent model with a natural ease acting in front of camera – more than that though, her creativity tends to inspire the photographer. Only the other day we were setting to on routine maintenance of our weather station equipment. As ever a vine needed trimming back from the main rain gauge; before long Tamsin was plaiting the offcuts in to a fairy crown or wreath. The early autumn leaf tinges in crimson were complemented by the red fleece that she was wearing, so down the ladder I climbed & went to fetch a camera.


Whilst a 50mm to 85mm focal length is often ideal for portraiture, I’ve developed a liking for the feel of the Sigma 150mm f2.8 macro lens & the results it offers, so that’s the lens I chose. With strong sideways lighting from the afternoon sun I mounted a 580EX speedlite on an off-camera bracket, to provide some fill light thereby softening the sun shadows. I also fitted the speedlite with a Stofen diffuser to ensure that the flash fill would be soft. With all this selected & mounted on the 1D MkIV, time for some shots.

Settings & Positioning:

Tamsin was sitting in full afternoon sun, with a little adjustment the sunshine would illuminate her left side, lifting her hair & modelling the leafy crown. If I knelt down to give her a slightly dominant position, a dark green hedge (some metres behind) would provide the ideal backdrop. Now for camera settings; an aperture of F5 gave me enough depth of field to keep facial features, hair & leafy crown in focus; whilst losing the background hedge with a pleasing bokeh. I set partial metering to get an exposure guide that was weighted towards Tamsin’s face, I had previously set highlight priority mode in camera but care would still be needed to avoid blowing highlights in the hair. With the Stofen diffuser, one loses about 1 stop of light from the flash, this would be ideal as fill, so no adjustment needed there. My speedlites tend to live with high-speed synchro enabled but I did a quick check never the less. Shooting in manual mode my exposures varied between 1/125s & 1/250s. An example shot is shown below, this has received light editing including a little warming & some soft touch, but is generally fairly straightforward:



Some of the fantasy characters that Tamsin is writing at the moment are, how can I put it, a little haughty 🙂 As I shot, Tamsin started to act out a little flavour of those characters and upon viewing the results I felt that I should take the portrait a little further, using digital darkroom techniques. This is not intended as a detailed tutorial, but here’s an overview of the process:

My routine workflow is to import all photos in to Adobe Lightroom, often Lightroom’s own tools are all that is required, but here I wanted to get more creative. After basic checks, lens correction & noise control, the image was exported to Silver Efex Pro. Silver Efex Pro has been my monochrome conversion tool of choice for a good few years now, offering useful presets & extensive manual tools, allowing one to quickly achieve the type of look required. I started with a fairly low key look & adjusted to give significant contrast with burnt edges plus a little grain & silvering. I now imported my colour & monochrome images in to Photoshop as separate layers. Selective colour & an external blur filter were applied before exporting to PortraitPro 15. Editing in Portrait Pro was mainly limited to adding some drama to the eyes and tweaking the selective lip colouring, with a little reduction of grain from the skin areas. The final image was imported back to Lightroom for tagging & filing. Thus the “Autumn Fairy in Noir” was created.

Additional Imagery:

The mini gallery below shows the two pictures from this article plus a few other images created with related techniques. Click on an image to view it larger with exif data.

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In Woodland, uses similar processing plus Corel Painter brushes to create the wispiness in the background.
Woodland Archery, uses dappled woodland light & fill flash to produce a low key portrait.
Magical Moments, was created in studio with a large light box.
Giggles, was taken quite a few years ago now, using a simple 2 head studio flash setup.

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