Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview: Portrait Photographer Lynn Nguyen

I could not be more excited to publish our first in a series of interviews with incredibly talented artists.  

Lynn Nguyen, welcome to One Brooklyn Modern.  

Lynn is a close friend of my cousin Courtney, and I became rather obsessed with her after she photographed Courtney's son Eli.  I mean, look at this:

Mr. E.
Lynn lives in Texas, which I've tried very hard to read as Brooklyn, but alas, no.  She owns a business called Lynn In Love, a name I find endlessly endearing.  And, she was good enough to agree to this interview! I'm sure you will love it as much as I do; it is the perfect guide for beginners looking to up their game.


"I’ve been shooting portraits for over 10 years and I never grow tired of it!  In this modern world, where dSLR’s are so assessable, I love being able to help consumers create the best images possible.   It is such blessing for me to be able to create works of art for my clients that captures a moment of time for them.  I hope I can get you jump started on doing the same thing!" - Lynn


Q:  What should amateurs know about ISO, aperture, and shutter speed?

This is a great question! It also means that you are ready to get of the green box or AUTO mode on your dSLR, and unleash its capabilities.

ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are the three components of exposure, in other words, how your camera see light.   These three elements work together to get a perfect exposure.  When you are shooting in manual (which I always recommend learning), if you change one of the elements, you have to keep in mind how it effects the other 2 components and adjust them accordingly.  The following is a lot of information pared down to the basics!  I’d encourage you to read more about these to get more information.  

I like to start by talking about aperture.  Aperture is how wide the camera lens opens when you click the shutter.

The wider the lens opens, the more light comes through.   The depth of field of an image is dependent on your aperture.  Aperture is measured by f-stops.  

This can be the confusing part:  the lower the F-stop, the wider the lens open, and the smaller the depth of field.  For example, if you are shooting landscapes, and you want everything in the picture (foreground, midground, and background) to be focus, you need to shoot with a higher F-stop like F16 or F22, which is a narrow opening, and a long depth of field.  For a portrait photographer like myself,  I like the subject/person of my image to be the focus of the attention.  This often means I’ll use a lower F-stop, 1.2 to 2.8, so that my subject is the only part that is in focus while the foreground and background are blurred out.

These are all shot at F 1.8.  Notice only one plane is in focus.  It allowed the twinkle lights I put in the background to get blurred out

Also shot at f1.8, you see how the background and foreground is blurry and only the mother’s belly is in focus

In this image with 9 subjects in varying distances from my camera, I needed to increase my aperture in order to get everyone in focus. This image was shot at f3.2.

Shutter speed is how fast the camera lens opens and closes.  If you watch to catch a movement in time, such as in sport photography, you need a very fast shutter speed, 1/500-1/8000th of a second.  If you want to capture light trails of cars or stars, or waterfall pictures, you need a slow shutter speed (and a tripod!) from 1/4th a second to even longer.

This is shot at a very fast 1/8000 to capture that moment of her dress falling without any motion blur at all!

I used an off camera flash and a slow shutter speed of 20seconds to paint light in this wedding portrait.

I again used off camera flash and then a slow shutter speed 1/6th to capture some movement in the image.

ISO is how sensitive your camera is to light.  If you are shooting in low light settings, such as indoors or at night without a flash, you will need to increase your ISO in order for your camera be able to capture the image.  But you need to understand that by increasing your camera’s sensitivity to light, you are making the sacrifice of increasing grain or in the digital world: noise!

ISO is often the limitation of entry level dSLR’s that motivates photographers to upgrade to better or more expensive cameras.   Higher-end cameras usually handle ISO noise much better than entry level dSLR’s.

For example, I used to shoot on a Nikon D70, which created beautiful outdoor photos where there is a ton of light.  However, when I was shooting indoors for weddings and flash wasn’t an option,, I had to increase my ISO to 800-1600 which created awful ugly grain and noise.    I’ve since upgraded to my Canon 5D Mark II, and now I regularly shoot at 1200-2400 and can still create beautiful portraits without having to worry about too much noise/grain.

An image from my old Nikon D70, not a terrible image, but you see at ISO 800, there starts to be some grain/noise in the shadows.

This is shot with my 5DMII at ISO 1600 in a dark warehouse.  Hardly any noise!  Any grain you do see is quite attractive!

Your dslr has an internal light meter! Open up your manual and learn how to use it.  Adjust your settings so that your exposure is always in the middle (or just a little overexposed, which is how I shoot.    Remember that if you have shooting with a lower aperture, you’ll have more light to come into your lens.   To compensate, you’ll likely have to increase your shutter speed and/or lower your ISO, so that your image won’t be overexposed.

2.  How do you get the background of a picture to be blurry?  

I love this in portrait photography!  This blurriness is called “bokeh”!  This is explained in the above question by shooting wide or with a low F-stop!   I shoot with prime lens as they get me to capabilities of shooting very wide!  I get as open as 1.2 with my 50mm 1.2 L lens.

Depending on what your lens is, will depend on how low your f-stop will go.  Go and experiment shooting on Aperture Priority or Manual, and change your aperture.  See what kind of bokeh you get at 1.2 vs 2.8 vs 3.5 vs. 4.0

I used an aperture of f1.8 to get that pretty background bokeh.

Bokeh at f2.0.

3.  Do you have go-to camera settings for shooting people indoors without a flash?
Nope!  I shoot 100% in manual so I have to adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed accordingly to my light conditions.  

I’ll tell you that when I’m shooting one adult I often like my aperture at 1.8-2.2.  For kids who moving, or two people and I need to increase my depth of field to get more subject in focus, I’ll start my aperture at 2.2 -2.8.  For 3 or more people, I’m almost always above 2.8

If I’m in bright outdoor light, I like my ISO to be as low as possible, 100-200.  If I’m indoors with good window light my ISO is usually 200-400.  If I’m in a dark indoors or at night I’ll almost always above 800 or I’m starting to use off camera flash.

My shutter speed is almost the last thing I’ll adjust after setting the above 2.  I’ll let you know that I have VERY shakey hands.  I never want camera motion to affect a picture.  So in order for me to get good crisp images, I like to always shoot above 1/200.  I’ll increase my ISO, or lower my f-stop if my light meter tells me I can’t have a good exposure above 1/200.

Some people have very steady hands and can shoot at 1/60th and still have a crisp picture!  Lucky them!

4.  What post-processing software do you use.  Any favorite techniques for post-processing?  

I shoot almost exclusively in RAW instead of JPEG.  RAW images are captured with as much information as a file can have.  This is particularly advantageous for when I’m doing any post-processing as not to degrade a picture.    

I always start by culling and make my basic edits to my RAW images in Lightroom (white balance, exposure, noise reduction).   I then export the basic edit to a JPEG files.  Then I make my fine art edits in Photoshop where I retouch my images and run a super secret action that makes an image a “Lynn in Love Photo” piece of art!

I loved this session, but we were working in a dark room.  This is shot with my 50mm 1.2 at f2.8, 1/200, and ISO 1000.  When you work with RAW files, you will always seem to find that the files have a grey film over them.  You will not see if you shoot with JPEG files.  I fix my white balance, exposure, and do a little noise reduction in Lightroom.  After I export the JPEG files, I open them in Photoshop.  I use the clone tool to do some little retouching, take out the jaundice around the eyes, and then run my super action at a low opacity to get my final fine art image!  The changes are subtle, but it’s this fine adjustment that makes the photograph!

5.  Do you favor shooting a little underexposed or overexposed?

Almost always a bit overexposed, I love light and bright images in contrast to dark and moody pictures.

6.  Any other tips for great portrait photography.

Good light is essential for portrait photography!!  Before I think about composition, or posing, I look for great light!  

If possible, I like to work with natural light, it just fits with my personal style.   When I’m on a shoot, I’ll always look for beautiful diffuse light.  I try to always work during “Golden Hour” which is 1-2 hours prior to sunset.  The sun is at an angle/color that is beautiful and will not cause harsh shadows.  

Shot at Golden Hour as well as backlit (50mm 1.2 at F2.8, 1/640 at ISO 400)   If you shoot on Manual, you can control your settings to properly expose your subject.  If I had shot this scene on the green box or with a point or shoot, the subjects would have been silhouetted!

If I have to work outdoors outside of golden hour, then I’m looking for open shade and good natural reflectors that will cast beautiful light in my subject’s face.   I will often to shoot backlit (with the sun behind my subject) so that I can avoid harsh shadows on my subject’s face.

Because of the baby’s sleeping schedule we had to shoot in the early afternoon!  There was crazy harsh lighting everywhere in the park.  I put myself and the family in the only spot of open shade I could find, and now we have some pretty diffuse light on their faces and no bad shadows!  Shot with my 50mm 1.2, F2.8, 1/500, ISO 200.

It was bright outside, I put this beautiful mama in some shade, and the light bounced off the concrete floor (natural reflector) onto her face!  Lovely! 50mm 1.2 at f2.8, 1/250, ISO 250.

Early morning light is also beautiful! 1-2 hours after sunrise!  This is shot backlit as well. 50mm 1.2 lens at F2.5, 1/160, ISO 400.

If I’m working indoors, which I often do with my newborns, then I’m looking for beautiful diffuse window light!  

[Anne: I'm a little partial to this one!]
Shot from beautiful window light! – Shot with my 50mm 1.2 at F 2.5, at 1/200 and ISO 600.

If I can’t find window light, then I’ll fake it with off camera flash, shooting through a diffuser such as a shoot through umbrella or softbox.

If you can’t seem to get great pictures, try shoot during the golden hour or always have your subject in window light and you’ll see a dramatic difference!


1.What kind of camera do you use?  What’s your recommendation for an amateur?

You can find my entire list of equipment on the bottom of my welcome page!

Canon 5D Mark II

But I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II (my baby!) And my favorite all time lens in the 50mm 1.2L lens.  I have a ton of other lenses, but this one stays on my camera 90% of the time!

Canon 50mm 1.2 Lens

I always tells people to always invest in quality lens over the camera body.   Good glass will always take you far!   I love the Canon Rebels and the Nikon D90 for entry level dSLR’s.  Start building a repertoire of good lenses and when you have outgrown your entry level dSLRs, you can still use these lenses with your body upgrades.

2. What lenses do you recommend? 

It all depends on what your budget and what you are shooting. I love my prime lens with a fixed focal length because the aperture range and the quality of the bokeh.   Lower aperture (like 1.2-1.0) usually only comes on prime lenses.

However, zoom lenses may be practical for others. The 24mm-70mm and the 70mm-200mm are favorite zoom lenses for portrait photographers.

Personally, I think every portrait photographer should have a 50mm or (35mm on a cropped sensor) in their arsenal.  Canon has a very economical 50 1.8mm lens for only $100. The Canon 50mm 1.4mm lens is around $350 and I know many professional photographers who use this lens.

My 50mm 1.2mm lens is a thing of beauty, and my #1.  At $1,300 the price jump is huge, but for me, the quality for my clients is worth it.

3.  Do you use filters? 

Almost never! I know there are many arguments about using UV filters to protect your lens if you drop it, BUT - A very wise photographer ask me once:  “Why would you put a $60 piece of plastic in front of your thousands of dollars’ worth of glass”??

The only time I use a filter is if I’m going to the great outdoors (hiking, etc) and I know my lens will get very dirty and I’ll be too lazy to clean it later.

4.  Do you use custom white balance?

I don’t!  But I should! Because I shoot in RAW, I can easily change my white balance in Adobe Lightroom in post-processing and then sync all of my image.  However this is a waste of time, and my next goal is start shooting with custom white balance.

5.  Are there any non-SLR cameras that you love?

Absolutely!  I have many film cameras including a Holga, and Diana, but my absolute favorite non-SLR cameras are my polaroid camera and my Fuji Instax camera.    There is something absolute lovely about shooting with a camera with limited film and not having to do ANY post-processing.  Waiting for the film to develop in front of you as you wait - it’s magical!

Of course, if there is ANY camera that I’m shooting with at all times, it’s my Iphone!!  Iphonegraphy is fascinating with me and I love having a camera with me at all times that is small and assessable.  I’m fairly addicted to Instagram!


1. Kids move fast, do you have a minimim shutter speed that you use when shooting kids?

Oh boy are they fast!  I will never shoot a kid below 1/200th, but the faster the better!  Above 1/400 and higher is a great place to be, I’ll always sacrifice my ISO in order to get faster shutter speeds!

F2.5, 1/400, ISO 100.

2.  How do you get kids’s eyes to looks so crystal clear? Are there post-processing techniques you favor for kids?

I always focus on the eyes with fast shutter speeds.  You can sharpen the eyes in post, but do this very lightly otherwise you’ll get weird alien eyes!

3. What your advice for a child-friendly photoshoot?

I actually do not shoot many children, only babies, but here is my two cents:

Go into a child friendly shoot with an open mind and with a little preparation.

  • Never pop into a session with a camera in their face.   They will run away!
  • Get to know your child first and build a little rapport.  Once you get them comfortable and laughing then you can start shooting away!
  • Ask them questions about things they like to get excited and smiling. Enlist your parents to help make them smile! I always have a few photogenic items/toys just in case they start to get bored.
  • Avoid food bribes, because once the food enters the story, you’ll never get them out of their hand, and the rest of the shoot will likely involve messy images! 

Newborn photography is a whole another subject:  but just a few tidbits:

  • Safety is the number one priority!
  • Keep the room warm.
  • The earlier, the better. 5-7 days is optimal.
  • Be prepared for spit up, and accidents!

F3.2, 1/320, ISO320.

Hope you learned a lot from this interview!  Have fun creating beautiful portraits!!


Well, Lynn, that was amazing.  Thank you so much for the incredibly informative interview! Readers, you can devour all of Lynn's amazing creations on her blog.  If you have any more questions, or just want to say awesome interview, please comment below!