100 portraits

These are the original blog postings that I wrote after each 5 completed portraits. They help you track my learning process throughout the 100 portraits project.

Final Thoughts: 19/12/2008

So, here I am at the end of the project. 100 people choosing each other in a chain over which I had no control. The first portrait was my lovely sister-in-law’s equally lovely sister in Paisley and the last was a great-grandmother in Drumchapel. Most portraits were in the greater-Glasgow area with only occasional sorties to Ardrisaig, Edinburgh, Uplawmoor and Gourock. I estimate that I drove around 2500 miles to meet people. I spent an average of 1 1/2 hours with most people and always met them at a place of their choosing. I took around 7500 exposures, burned around 80 CD’s of images and printed over one hundred 5×7’s. Around 2 females were chosen or agreed to be chosen for every 1 man, and only 3 of my subjects were children with only two of these being young children. Three people had portraits done and then I removed them from the project as they couldn’t find me a “next in the chain”; when this happened, I went back to the previous person in the chain and asked them to recommend me someone new to take the chain in a new direction. The chain was therefore unbroken. After Dianne, who was number one, I didn’t meet any other person who I knew or knew about. The chain only crossed over itself once, with a subject being reintroduced to me by a later subject while I was visiting their flat.

The most difficult thing was phoning, texting, emailing and harrassing people to meet me far more quickly than they usually wanted to. For this I feel guilty and also grateful as most people were tolerant of my three-and-a-half-days-per-person average requirement for the year.

Photographically, I have learned a stack. I don’t kid myself that it has made me a great portrait photographer, but it has made me a lot better than I was. The main challenge was working with people in bad light or with cluttered difficult backgrounds since I never pre-planned, but made the best of the location my subject wanted. This has made me learn to think quickly and make the best of what I have while still prioritising the important business of getting to know my subject and keeping them relaxed.

If I was advising anyone who was doing portraits “in the wild”, I would say after working on your people skills which are first, second and third on the priority list, get some kind of off camera flash, a good reflector and a camera with reasonable low-light performance. Controlling the light is everything when you are dealt a bad hand by the environment and your on-camera flash just won’t cut it.

Overall, hassles aside, I have loved the project, loved meeting people and have come out the other end loving portraiture even more than I thought I did at the beginning. If anyone wants any portraits done, then I’m up for it!

My choice now is whether to leave this blog as is, or to press on and become a photo-blogger. I’ll decide that over the next few days. If you have any thoughts then please let me know?

Happy photographing and thanks for taking an interest in “100 portraits”.

Looking again, and live-view with a tripod: 23/11/2008

I have been thinking a lot recently about photos that I look at repeatedly and thinking why? One of the things that amuses me is the whole business of giving someone a compliment on the “Flickr” site by “favouriting” their photos; I often wonder how often we look back over our favourites. This set me thinking about pictures that I actually do seek out to look at again. It won’t surprise you to hear that I do this with portraits a lot but almost never with landscapes or abstracts. I’m sure people who are more passionate about those areas do look back periodically, but in my case it’s people every time. When I think of Bill Wadman’s portrait 365 project, I can pick out about 10 0r 20 people who’s pictures I carry in my head and occasionally look up on his site. I wonder why this happens for people like me who like portraits? I think the reason is that you form a little one-way relationship with the people in the portraits. You imagine talking to them, meeting them, who they are and what their lives are like? In short you kind of become a little infatuated with them like you would with real people, except the reality of meeting someone never gets in your way.  So for those of us who love portraits to the extent that we look again and again, I think they wire into our basic social biology and behaviours in a disturbingly direct way. I love it!

Techie Stuff:

Near the end of the project now I can reflect on my favourite way of taking portraits. Although I still take most pictures looking through the viewfinder in the traditional fashion, I think the best, and sharpest portraits are generally produced using the DSLR mounted on my now beloved 055 Manfrotto and using live-view. Do you remember just a year or so ago people were saying in the reviews of the Canon 40D and other live-view enabled cameras that live-view was a gimmick entirely unnecessary on an SLR. I wonder how many people like me consider it indispensable a year or so later? When I hear that the new high-end Sony Alpha 900 doesn’t include it I have to say I am astonished; I wouldn’t buy another camera without it. So what’s so great about it you ask?

The thing that makes a DSLR so great is it’s sheer picture quality and versatility for the price, no small cameras give you the control over the background bokeh (blurring) that a DSLR manages for a relatively low price. The downside is the way that the DSLR covers your face while you look through it and turns you into a scary-Cyclops no matter how much you try to talk and relax your subject. If the portrait session allows you to choose one place to set up a tripod then I would always recommend turning on live-view if you have it. This lets you talk to your subject with proper eye contact while you check the composition on the back of the camera.  I always switch to manual focus as I like to zoom in by 10x on my subjects eyes and turn the manual focus ring while waiting poised on the shutter release to nail the perfect sharp eyes. I get a fantastic hit rate of eye sharpness this way compared to auto focus. Just remember that on the Canon 40D, as you use the little joystick to move the “square” around the screen, the area it covers, eg the face will become effectively a spot metering point. This means that even in manual focus you can’t ignore where the focus square is on the screen.

Live view is here to stay and I am glad. However the first time I see someone hold a DSLR at arms length like a compact camera, I’ll be as horrified as every other purist was at the prospect a year ago; mercifully I’ve never seen this happen, so perhaps people are brighter than the camera magazines gave them credit for.

sharing your plan and making sense of flash in darkness: 26/10/2008

People Stuff:

As I have taken more portraits I have started to evolve some habits. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is open of course to debate. One habit is that once I have identified a location that works well or that my subject wants to use, I go through a similar procedure.

1. I take a couple of positioning pictures with little regard to finessing of poses or facial expressions. These shots are just to check position and general composition and often to decide on my desired “depth of field” to include more or less background detail. I will usually share these decisions with my subject to involve them.

2. I will then do some pictures, for real and try to get something good but encouraging the subject to try a few different expressions, positions, direction of looking etc. Sometimes I will use one of these, but just as often I would then ask my subject to relax and look over these to get feedback for both of us on what is working well and what isn’t so good. I often allow my subjects to delete any they strongly dislike at this stage to help them feel secure and in control of the session.

3. Finally after discussion we will try to repeat the subjects’ favourite result from stage 2, and during this stage I will be fine tuning the lighting or flash positioning. I tend not to labour this stage, but I do find that the best results often happen at this point as both my subject and I are focussing in on what we think is best.

So my point about working with people, is whenever you get to the stage of trying a promising location, it is really important to share this rough plan with them so that they don’t feel uptight about the direction the session is going. Share it all up-front and they will participate more intelligently and effectively. No one wants to be wondering what their photographer is thinking.

Techie Stuff:

This is just a small point, but quite an important one about using dedicated (Through The Lens metered flash, ETTL). When you are taking photographs and you are in the habit of using aperture priority to set the depth of field required, it can confuse you a little bit when you use flash to cope with low light situations. Although ETTL flash, (in which the camera fires a preflash and meters it before setting the brightness for the real exposure a fraction of a second later), will work, I never get good sharp results this way. If the light is low, then set your camera to Shutter priority and set a speed that is within your camera’s flash-synchronisation speed. Typically 1/125th or 1/250th of a second. If the flash is your primary light source rather than a fill in or corrective light this is the only way to avoid a long exposure that will still soften your image. A tripod might help, but your subject probably won’t be still enough for real sharpness. So 1/125th typically would give a nice sharp image, although it may use a larger aperture than you would have chosen.

This is where Manual mode is probably the best way to go. If you dictate the shutter speed and aperure you would like within reason, and providing you are using an ETTL type flash system, then the system will just kick out more light to make it happen. So in summary:

If you are doing flash portraits in dark conditions:

Use “shutter” priority not aperture priority.

Use “manual” mode to control shutter speed and get the aperture you need. This will only work within reason – f22 is unlikely to work, the flash can’t put out levels of light like the sun can! In practice I would say a couple of stops smaller aperture is as much as it will manage before the light fall of is a problem; in portraiture however the difference between f1.8 and say f3.5 is important.

So in summary, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the mode that works brillianly for 95% of your portraiture, Aperture priority, will work with flash when the setting is really dark and the flash becomes your primary source; it wont. Use shutter priority mode or even better, use manual mode.

Black clothes and spare cameras: 05/10/2008

People Stuff:

People generally want to look good in their portrait. This is a statement of the blindingly obvious. Some people are genuinely relaxed about it and you “take them as you find them” but the majority of my subjects make a bit of an effort and usually meet me “scrubbed up” and dressed for a portrait. Herein lies an issue that I suppose is partly technical, but entirely related to peoples’ ideas about looking good. I am referring of course to black! People often choose black, I am told because it is perceived as a “slimming” colour, and since a recent survey by Canon UK said that 52% of us hold in our stomachs while on the danger-end of a camera, then I suppose it’s fair to deduce that black is just another strategy to look slimmer. At least 20 of my subjects so far have had a predominantly black outfit on. So why is this a problem? The fact is that black can be hard to photograph effectively. It is a light absorbing colour, and so often looks like a black-space in the picture. If you try to light it more brightly, then (depending on the fabric) you can get specular reflections. It is also hard to balance the quantity of light on a black (absorbent) outfit with a pale (reflective) face. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just challenging. Colours also give you the option of looking for something in the environment that will complement or contrast with the outfit.

My cat Pepsi is black, and she is also a nightmare to photograph. Too little light and there is a cat-shaped hole in the picture. Too much light and specks of dust seem to be visible all over her with her sleek coat looking jagged and ugly; I have about 3 pictures of her I like and I have tried at least a hundred. Anyway, I don’t want to get into clothes advice, it’s not my area of knowledge; but if someone asks me whether black or a colour for a photoshoot, I’ll go colour every time!

Techie Stuff:

I’m having a dilemna at present. My 40D is slightly broken! The mode dial has 16 modes on it split into automatic ones like “landscape” and Creative ones like “aperture priority”. Recently whichever mode I choose, the camera is in fully automatic or fully manual except for “aperture priority”. This is a worrying sign that the selector is faulty and I am worried that it might get worse or fail completely. Thankfully I use “aperture priority” almost all the time, although I have started playing more with manual mode. Either way, If the camera fails I have no high-quality backup. The camera is under warranty, but I am told it could take 3 to 4 weeks worst case for a repair through Canon UK. Basically I have to get a new camera as a fall-back to see me through that period and to be a permanent spare. Although I’m not a professional, people still go to a lot of trouble to meet me and if my camera failed, my Canon G7 compact would be a very poor substitute, (particularly in low light), and I would let them down. I am still embarrassed by the memory of having to ask Mardi, one of my subjects to meet me a second time after the camera failed in wet conditions.

So I need a new spare camera, and my thinking is that I don’t want a basic camera like the 1000D or a physically tiny one like the 450D and I can’t afford the new Canon 5D Mk2 that I would really love, so I’ll try for a used 40D like my current one until the price of the just-released 50D drops to a more reasonable level. The point I’m making though, is that as a portraitist, working with people who give their time to you, you need a spare camera of sufficient quality to keep you photographing.

Style revisited and camera thoughts: 19/09/08

People Stuff:

I was thinking about photographic styles and wondering whether anything had begun to emerge in my own portraiture. I had a look over Bill Wadman’s 365portraits.com site again and tried to think about that elusive definition of style with reference to his portraits. By a happy coincidence, Bill posted a piece asking the same questions about his own style a few days after that made me realise a few things.

http://www.ontakingpictures.com/2008/09/style.html

The main compositional feature of my portraits is how likely they are to be composed tightly, with the subjects waist being about the lowest point that will feature in the frame. Looking over my 80 portraits so far, the only way a subject is likely to have their legs included is if I am looking down on them at an acute angle. (This by the way might be one of my stylistic urges, it has featured 7 times out of 80 which is a lot for an extreme technique of framing?) Indeed in 33 cases so far I would describe the framing is “tight on the face alone”. I think the inevitable conclusion is that I like to get close with my portraits, the desire to show eyes seems to be my compositional imperative. I thought about this during my 81st portrait, last evening when I had to choose between my 2 favourites for posting. One was a full body shot with lots of lush magical background and the other a waist-up shot with magic in the eyes. I was already thinking about this blog entry, and therefore a little anxious to avoid just choosing a shot from habit alone; which do you think I chose? (Check Pat, no 81!)

Another photographic style feature, which Bill’s blog helped me to think about is contrast and colour saturation. I am aware that I try to push both of these until just before the point at which they look over the top or unnatural, but nevertheless I do push them a bit. I think the look I am trying to achieve in portraits is towards the “painterly”. If I am only making one portrait of someone, I want it to have that slightly unreal presence that you get from a good painting. Clearly I still want it to be a photograph, but with leanings….

And Bill also suggested that lens choices define the style to some extent. I am starting (I think) to favour the Sigma 28mm f1.8. This is pretty close to being a “standard” lens on my Canon 40D with its 1.6X crop factor. (This means a lens that has a similar angle of view to the human eye). Since I seem to do so many close compositions you would think that the 50mm Canon f1.4 would be ideal, but although I use it a lot, I must still favour getting physically close, cropping tight on my subject, and trying to include as much sense of the background as I can. Perhaps the slightly more telephoto 50mm (on my camera anyway) doesn’t allow me to give a sense of the background?

More on style soon…

Techie Stuff:

At the time of writing, there have been a raft of new camera announcements and I have been reading the specifications eagerly. I wanted to reflect on the “megapixel” issue. My own camera, the Canon 40D has just been updated to the 50D. In this line the 20D and then the 30D were about 8 megapixels, then I bought the 40D which is 10 megapixels. (I was upgrading from a 10 megapixel 400D). The 50D has leapt now to 15 megapixels; what is going on? A very conservative line of enthusiast cameras, which has always been incremental in megapixel ratings (potential picture resolution), has suddenly taken a quantum leap. This set me thinking.

There is a wisdom in digital cameras that says we have plenty of megapixels for any purpose, and indeed you can produce good A3 size prints from 8 megapixel cameras, and if you need to go larger (rare indeed) then software will “upscale” your images to make them acceptable on the side of a building. The professional benchmark camera one year ago was the Canon 1D mark 3 at 10 megapixels. I have never had a problem with the 10 megapixels I have always worked with in DSLR’s. However, when I was processing one of my portraits in lightroom, I was working on the image I mentioned with a full framing , from feet to head in a wood, with spare room top and bottom. I zoomed on on the eyes, and discovered that since they were already a small part of the frame, that I had to double my usual zoom ratio to check for sharpness and clarity. To my astonishment, I noticed that I could see some of the telltale “blockiness” and pixelation that low resolution produces. (To see what I mean, take a picture on your cameraphone and then zoom in on a small detail; as you go in blocks will begin to appear that show that the sensor ran out of resolution.) So guess what, I would like more resolution.

More pixels on a sensor of course means more noise. (the electronically generated speckling). The reason for most photographers choosing reasonable resolution, 8 megapixels or 10 megapixels is that this balances detail capture with acceptable noise performance. However, Canon are claiming that the newly announced 50D at 15 megapixels and 5D at 21 megapixels, will not compromise the low noise figures; if the reviews agree with them, (and Canon are usually conservative in their claims), then as soon as the initial price drops to something sensible I will want one. Noise is my priority, but if I can have my cake and eat it, then I will.

http://www.dpreview.com/previews/canoneos50d/

People Protocols and Cropping Realities: 12/09/08

People Stuff:

I’ve been kind of avoiding this, but as a portrait photographer it’s of important. I’ll just cut straight to the chase on this one; don’t touch your subjects. It’s kind of stating the obvious for most people, but being someone’s portraitist means establishing a temporary intimacy (which I’ve talked about before) that you try to capture for the benefit of everyone who will look at the portrait; that “intimacy” means that you need to be trustworthy. One thing that makes you trustworthy is showing respect for people’s personal space; being someone’s portraitist gives you no right to invade their space. There are times when it becomes easier to gently place someone’s shoulder or elbow in a spot that they are struggling to find by description only, but they are rare occasions and when the shoulder has found its position they are over. (Always check it’s OK when you use a hand to position someone first by the way!)


This was on my mind recently when I watched a large “harvestman” spider walk very rapidly up my subject’s front (we had wandered into vegetation) and as I tried to give a gentle warning I realised the spider was on my subjects stomach. This was one of those rare occasions when a gentle flick to remove the spider was better than it going higher and alarming someone; we both agreed it was the right course of action after I apologised We then resumed our fruitful and “professional” portrait session.


Be respectful and always err on the polite side if you want subjects to be at their best with you.


Techie Stuff:


You may have noticed that most of my portraits have a similar rectangular shape. This is one of the compromises in my portraits that drives me crazy. I thought it might be worth just saying something brief here about cropping. I always give my subjects a print, and the most cost effective way to do that is using a reasonably large but affordable 5 x 7 inch print. This means that I tend to crop my image in “lightroom” to a 5 x 7 ratio. The beauty of lightroom is that it allows you to make those changes without actually changing the files themselves, so the raw file is saved intact while lightroom only presents the crop that you have chosen. If someone wants an A4 or an 8 X 10 I can revert via the original file to a new format. The problem here is that the print size dictates the crop.

I am actually particularly fond of a square crop, but my love of printing images rather than just leaving them to an onscreen digital existence means that I don’t use them often; even if I print and trim a piece of decent quality inkjet paper, finding a frame is a nightmare. So if you want to creatively crop your images to whatever format looks right, you’d better not plan to print. The trouble is that I believe that prints are still the gold-standard of photography whether digital or analogue, and that will continue to dictate my cropping for most images. If I allow myself to become too wildly unfettered in creative cropping then I might end up with art that only computer users can enjoy. I recognise that the digital photography chain from taking to printing is unsatisfactory in that it limits the crops. Perhaps future printing and framing systems will allow more flexibility, but for now it is hugely more expensive to print any format you like (and have a custom frame made) than to use a cheap off-the-shelf size.

Think about the practicalities when you crop.


Age balance and a review of the ST-E2 wireless flash transmitter: 26/08/08

People Stuff:

I believe I have already blogged about the bias toward female subjects against male in this project. (At this time it is about two thirds female). In this post I thought it might be time to observe the bias that exists towards certain age groups. Before I go on I should remind you that I never pick my next subjects in this project. If people ask who I would like as my next subject, I always say two things:

  1. “I am always keen to have a variety of subjects”
  2. “It’s important to me that you choose my next subject”

I am curious therefore that the project doesn’t produce a greater variety of ages. Out of seventy subjects to date, only one has been under sixteen and only two have been over retirement age. I haven’t done any statistical checking, but I think most people have been in their twenties or early thirties.

So why isn’t there a greater variety? When people are asked to choose a subject for a portrait I suppose their must be a number of factors that they consider:

  • Family closeness. (Mother, Grandson etc.)
  • Friendship
  • Attractiveness. (Good looks, “photogenicity” etc.)
  • Interestingness. (Unusual, Quirky, Characterful etc.)

And in this “100portraits” project which is internet based:

  • Internet familiarity/access

I simply don’t have an answer, but I have noticed certain patterns, none of which I would stand by in a court of law!

  • Older subjects have tended to pick younger family members.
  • Boyfriends and girlfriends have tended to choose each other.
  • The young in their twenties or student aged tend to choose within a similar age group

I suppose the broad summary is that the young have tended to choose the young, and the older have tended to choose the younger! So why; do people tend to want portraits more of younger people? Answers on a postcard please!

Techie stuff:

Wireless ETTL is a very good thing. I own two flashes, the Canon 580 and 430, both capable of acting as wireless slaves. Up till recently I have used the cheap “cactus” wireless flash transmitter from an Ebay shop. (These are commonly referred to as Ebay wireless flash transmitters since they are exclusively available from Chinese Ebay stores). This transmitter is a pain with Canon flashes as it causes random triggering whether you have pressed the camera shutter or not. This is beyond irritating as you might imagine for both subject and so-called photographer. The reason I persisted is that the transmitter/receiver pair is about £25 UK and works with radio so over a reasonable range it is reliable regardless of line of sight between the transmitter (on the camera hotshoe) and the receiver (on the hotshoe foot of the flash). The reliable version of this is the “pocket wizard”, it is fabulously reliable but the same single radio sender/transmitter is about £250 UK pounds. Too costly for what it is I’m afraid.

My Canon 580 flash is a superb beast and will act as a master unit to wirelessly trigger the 430, allowing me to place the 430 as a fill in flash for creative lighting effects. It has certain disadvantages however:

  1. It is infra-red and uses coded pre-flashes as far as I can make out in some strange combination rather than the more reliable radio signals. This means that there must be a reasonable line of sight between the 580 on the camera as “master” and the 430 as “slave” off camera. Thankfully indoor use is easier as the line of sight limitation is a bit more relaxed since the transmit signal tends to bounce all around the room.
  2. It has a horribly non-intuitive control interface that means changing from master to slave, adjusting the ratio of master to slave brightness etc is fiendishly difficult, even after you have carefully read the manual. This doesn’t help you keep rapport with your subject since you will be hopping up and down, swearing at the unit and pressing the irritatingly few multi function buttons in an increasingly random fashion. Basically you will avoid wireless flash as a bad and complex idea unless you are made of stern stuff and have a doctorate in advanced avionics interface design!
  3. It is a wasteful way to operate the slave since any portraitist worth their salt will seldom be using the on-camera 580 as a flash; we all know that unless it is carefully bounced off another white surface the on-camera flash will remove all interest and shaping in your subject. So you generally can’t use it as a flash, it therefore becomes a £250-£300 UK transmitter which is bulky and heavy on a camera. I would rather have it as one of my pair of off-camera flash options.

So this takes me to the Canon ST-E2 wireless infra red transmitter. I gave in and bought one. It is small and light, triggers canon flashguns using line of sight, controls groups and ratios of brightness between groups. The interface is so simple my cat could operate it while holding a conversation with her subject. The line of sight requirement is a pain outdoors, where most of my portraits have been taken, but not a showstopper, careful positioning still allows you massive creative variation, (bearing in mind the infra red receiver windows on the flashguns can be rotated 360 degrees). Indoors, it is no problem at all due to the previously mentioned internal reflections. The obvious downsides are:

  1. Costing £130 UK is significant for an infra red transmitter, Canon in their wisdom have not produced a more reliable radio system. I have heard it said that this due to ease of licensing across international borders with their varying radio transmition laws? Many new models of DSLR have started to include the transmitter in the body of the camera with similar abilities. So far Canon hasn’t! Now I really love my Canon 40D, but competitive as it was, I have just paid extra to get what Samsung, Sony Olympus and I believe Nikon have included in their better cameras. ARE YOU LISTENING CANON! No I thought not.
  2. The battery is just weird, you won’t get it anywhere but a little specialist battery shop in Jibrovia…..So when you find one buy a few. Mercifully Ebay supply them at about £6 UK a pop!

Anyway, now that I have got that out of the way, let me tell you what is brilliant about it. The light is dull, the direction not quite right. Clip this on your hotshoe, set the two Canon flashes to slave mode, clip them to stands or branches or something. (Buy some spring clip brackets from Ebay again, very inexpensive). Keep everything in ETTL mode (Electronic Through The Lens metering) and position your key light and fill light or key light and back light. When you press the shutter this wizardry fires a little preflash and the camera metering measures the brightness of that and sends a coded flash signal to the flashguns to adjust their power for a good exposure. Then the flash actually fires at the “premeasured” brightness and makes the exposure. How cool is that. The Ebay cheapo, and even the industry standard “pocket wizards” only send a simple trigger signal. For me this means that the first picture will be close to being correct, and I can simply change the ratio if I want to move the balance between keylight and fill light. If ETTL has over or underexposed then it won’t be by much; a quick dialling in of exposure compensation is enough to nail that easily.

All my moans aside, I like this system and it has transformed my ability to cope with difficult light. I would recommend the Canon ST-E2 until Canon put it’s workings in a camera body. I hope the 5D’s successor will have that.


Single portrait discipline and Lightroom 2: 10/08/08

People Stuff:

For some reason I have been struggling with my recent portrait choices. I usually have a few favourite images that I can whittle down to one after a little while of pacing, drinking tea (or wine) and looking at the screen from different distances. My recent portraits seem to be getting tougher though as I often have two or three inseparable favourites of one person. This set me thinking about a question that interests me greatly, why choose just one picture of a person. My photographic hero, Bill Wadman did a portrait each day for a year and posted his single choice daily. I often gazed at these brilliant portraits and wished I could see more of his subject; he now has a new blog and has indulged himself by photographing some of his previous subjects and posting a few photographs from the session. Do I find it more satisfying now that I have seen more of these people? No, I suppose not. In the first moments of looking at a portrait, if someone said “would you like to see a few more images”? I couldn’t resist, I would say yes, but after seeing more, I think I feel less “hooked” than the original portrait left me.

In the short term, multiple portraits satisfy a curiosity, an urge, but in the long run the lack of lasting effect from the group of pictures tells me that there is something about the deep intrigue of seeing a single portrait that leaves me curious, hooked and wanting more. I have often wanted to solve my dilemma by posting two or three images of a person, but if you are like me, you’ll fall for the single portrait more deeply if you are going to like it at all!

I’d love to know how any visitors to 100portraits feel about this.

Techie stuff:

Someone recently said in an article, that photography is 50:50 taking the photo: processing the photo. I have to say that with some reservations I agree with this entirely. Even a well composed, well lit photograph can still lack some of the magic that a quick passage through “photoshop” or similar can give it. I still get a particular thrill from the perfect photo that requires no adjustment, and Ideally I would like all of mine to be like that, but if the photo is good but can be made fantastic in software, then just do it. If the picture is a turkey anyway, then no software will improve it anyway.

So what is my software of choice? Truth by told I love to saturate the colours, soften complexions adjust the tone curves to optimise the contrast to help the picture pop off the page. I hate spending time using software however, I have Photoshop Elements 5, which I like and respect, but I don’t love; it seems that whenever I open a picture in it, time just disappears and I find that I am taking fewer pictures and staring at a screen for too long.

I prefer Photoshop Lightroom. Lightroom does two things well, it manages all your images better than you can imagine, tracking them across multiple drives, and allowing you to tag, export, save and rate them with total ease. It also lets you make basic but powerful changes to the images themselves such as “curves”, saturation, sharpening, exposure adjustment, black and white conversions etc. It does all this within a single package and a single screen and I have had an imperfect love affair with it since January. Imperfect because I adore it for its power and speed with RAW files which I use exclusively, but when I wanted to sharpen someones’ eyes alone or make any “local” adjustment involving a “mask” or a selection, I had to do it in Photoshop Elements again. The fact that it would automatically call “Elements” from within “Lightroom” was only a small consolation, it is still too slow and fussy for a busy photographer to be happy with.

Well, my imperfect Lightroom affair is now perfect, and I am considering a consummation! Lightroom 2 is now out after a lengthy public beta test, and it is all I will need for all my processing. Within one package that is quick and efficient, I can now make general adjustments to my pictures, which worked perfectly for ninety percent of my images before, and for the remaining ten per cent, I can now make local adjustments to anything using either a virtual “grad filter” or “smart masking paintbrush” to apply any parameters. Sharpening just the eyes while increasing their brightness is a matter so trivial that you simply add it into your routine. Basically I hope to never open Photoshop Elements again unless it’s to use some obscure filter; by version 3 I expect that to be never, for the moment I confidently expect to go months without using it. I wouldn’t say this lightly, but Lightroom 2 is the software I need, its got every basic function I need, most of the advanced ones, and it is the quickest way I know to file, process, print and upload my pictures. Try it.

The camera points both ways and taking lens advice with a pinch of salt: 30/07/08

People Stuff:

I have attempted to explore the idea that a portrait is about capturing a moment in a relationship (albeit transitory on occasion) with the photographer. As the project has progressed I have not had any cause to change my mind about this, but I have been humbled by a professional photographer’s much more concise way of saying this. Rick Sammon, author, teacher and travel photographer while guesting on the excellent “Digital Photography Show“, said 2 incredibly powerful things about portraiture:

  1. He said as a portraitist, you have to “fall in love with your subject”.
  2. He also said, “remember the camera points both ways”!

So basically he is saying, if you really like your subject, and you are communicating admiration and respect, then the pictures will be better! If you don’t already know the subject, you should fall in love as quickly as possible. I wish I’d said that.

Listen for yourself:

http://digiphoto.thepodcastnetwork.com/2008/07/19/the-digital-photography-show-93-face-to-face-with-rick-sammon/

Techie stuff:

I have read book after book that tells me to use a portrait lens of around about 100mm focal length, or longer, to avoid the “distorting effect” of wide angle lenses. Most of my portraits have used my 50mm lens, (75mm equivalent approx) and my 28mm lens (42mm approx). This latter lens is slightly wide angle, and yet I have produced many of my favourite portraits with it. I have a 60mm prime, (90 mm) equivalent, and I don’t actually enjoy using it much at all. Rick Sammon in a single, powerful observation explained exactly why. A portrait is about the relationship, and the “intimacy” of the portraitist working with the subject. With a 100mm lens or longer, you are too far away from your subject, and the sense of intimacy is broken down. The distorting effects of wide angle lenses are only a major problem if you use a superwide angle lens, or go too close with a normal wide angle lens. I used my 70-300mm lens on my last picture and I HATED being so distant from my subject. Rick Sammon has helped with my understanding of this as well. Use lenses that keep you closer in!

A “sitters” viewpoint and printing: 5/07/08

People Stuff:

Now that I’m into the 2nd half of the project I would like to start to explore a little of the business of portraiture from the subjects side. I emailed all of my participants so far and asked if anyone would like to contribute a paragraph. The first person to reply was Kristen, who is a keen photographer herself. Her thoughts on the subject are really interesting and I thought I would reproduce them directly here.

“To be photographed really depends on your mood; it is of course better to feel relaxed than tense with worry or wish to be somewhere else. I think it’s of key importance to feel comfortable in your surroundings and ultimately by the person taking the picture. When I was young, I used to love posing for the camera and experimenting with make up and fashion and to this day I still love it. A certain expression and state of mind can be captured on film forever so I think it’s important to make the most of the time, light and life that you have. I think this common love that each person has for photographs is a legacy to the desire to capture something that means more than words to each person’s heart.

Therefore the act of being photographed can be a very big deal as you are likely through a sequence of snaps to reveal different aspects of your personality, for example, behind a smile may lie a glimmer of sadness that cannot be hidden from the truth of the camera lens, therefore I find it more fun to probe the more real-life exposure that lies behind the camera, I see the camera as an audience, almost someone to entertain, therefore depending on where you are, it can be your stage, you can use props, backgrounds and even fashion to mould and sculpt your identity the way you would like it to be seen through your own eyes, therefore, it is more automatic to appear more friendly as you may reflect a certain partnership with the camera to find the most peaceful and playful aspects to what is often spontaneous in nature.

To be photographed by Matthew was most helpful to my skills as a photographer and I found him very knowledgeable, professional and fun. He often felt the vibe of the best way to capture a moment that would be a catalyst for a better picture and let the scene unfold naturally allowing time for reflection on what suited the individual and what worked best with regard to the light. The camera was snapping away and I’d say it was a very cool photo-shoot, I will definitely be in contact for more projects :)”

I almost omitted Kristen’s third paragraph since she is being characteristically generous, but I thought it best just to include it as she wrote it. Thanks Kristen. I hope to have more people’s reflections on the process and results because I think it might be folly to become too engaged to ones own perspective as a photographer. How a subject feels is important to me.

Techie Stuff:

I wanted to reflect on what might be my favourite part of the process, and that is printing. I think there is a danger that we might start to print less and less these days and only ever look at photographs on computer screens. I know that lots of my friends have literally thousands of holiday photographs that they never turn into prints. I don’t want to arrogantly suggest that this is a bad thing, but personally, I believe that the best of your photographs deserve to be printed nicely, to be enjoyed on paper and seen in an album or a frame or even a pinboard. There is a quality to good paper prints that emphasises reflected light rather than the transmitted light of a screen, and only really good pictures look as good on paper as they do on the backlit brilliance of a computer screen. (Just like transparencies used to look better than most prints). For me the best of my pictures give me great pleasure in print whether it is the 100portraits album I am compiling or the framed prints on our walls at home or even the business cards with photos on them. I would urge you to get into the printing habit to really explore and enjoy the different qualities that make a great print.

However, a good print needs thinking about. There are 2 ways to go:

  • Submit your image files as JPEG’s to a print shop
  • Print yourself at home

A recent survey in “Amateur Photographer” magazine found that more people in the UK print their own pictures at home than any other European country! The same magazine has alarmed me by running a long series of comparisons of print quality and consistency from a variety of high street print shops. These shops ranged from excellent to poor, and I would recommend you try a few before you settle on a particular one as a reliable favourite. Theoretically the best of them should have regularly maintained and calibrated printers so don’t be afraid to search for a good one, they can be excellent indeed, and convenient.

The convenience and quality that I can achieve at home has swayed me in that direction. There are a few things to notice though if you are going to enjoy great prints.

Calibration: Early on I realised that I was editing pictures in Photoshop (elements) or Photoshop light room, and feeling pleased with the results onscreen, but being disappointed with the results. The most important thing you can do is to calibrate your screen using a colorimeter that will check the accuracy of the colour output of your screen and then create a “monitor profile” that automatically corrects your screen. I bought a cheap device with it’s own simple to use software by “Pantone” called the “Huey Pro” for around £100 UK. It took 5 minutes to run, measuring the room’s ambient light and checking colours that it flashed onto the screen. The result was amazing, my Sony Vaio laptop had had a colour cast that I hadn’t noticed, that seemed to result in blue clothing being fine after adjustments on screen, but ugly and over-saturated in prints. This simple adjustment prevents me from over or under processing screen colours because I wrongly perceive them.

Print Settings: Once you have a calibrated and reliable screen, it is good to sacrifice the cost of a set of small prints to try different settings to find which ones give prints that match your screen. It took me about 10 trial and error prints to get settings that were accurate, but now a few hundred prints later I get reliable and vibrant colours and delightful prints. The chief things to look at are:

  • Turn off fast print settings
  • Set Photoshop or Lightroom or whatever software you use “manage printing”; it does so much better than the printer software if it supports your printer.
  • Turn off bi-directional printing
  • Ensure the colour space set on your camera matches the printer driver settings. (Commonly Adobe RGB)
  • If you need to adjust a colour bias that makes the prints differ from your calibrated screen, then use the manual adjustment sliders and compare the results in natural daylight with your screen.
  • Then save all settings under a “profile name”, set it as your default and enjoy lovely reliable prints.

Paper and Ink: At the moment, the big printer manufacturers are fleecing us, any reps reading this, please take note, you are greedy swines, and your paper and ink prices are the reason why people buy cheap ink and crappy paper, but, the best way to get perfect prints is to buy the manufacturers proper ink, and paper. It’s costly, but if you are only printing out your best work as gifts or for special display, it’s manageable.

There are some lovely fine-art (so called) papers of very high quality that can also work beautifully with your printer manufacturer’s ink, but you need to use the settings that they recommend to get good results.

I’d love to have a moan now about how wasteful of energy electronic photo frames are, but here comes the nice man with my medication, so I’ll sign off by saying, good photographs ultimately have to make good prints; try a few and enjoy them.

Last word on the monopod and a short one on trust: 27/06/08

People Stuff:

Now that I have reached 50, (yahoo!) people in my project, I want to reflect on something very interesting that I have noticed. When I meet people who have looked on the “100portraits” blog, or who have been told about the project, they seem to trust me to take a decent picture of them. It seems that as I have progressed through the first 6 months of the project, either I have grown in confidence, or people have begun to treat me as a little bit of an “expert”? Truthfully I don’t know which, or whether it’s a mixture, but it’s nice to be trusted so much more easily.

I suppose the trust that people invest in a photographer is easier to give if they think you have a track-record or a reputation, but you still need to work hard at being a trustworthy person for each and every subject.

Techie stuff:

After my two previous contradictory (but close) monopod tests, I thought I would try one last time. I set up 12 lines of text on an A4 sheet of paper. I printed them by lines varying from 20 point text size to 8 point text size to differentiate where blurring was becoming a problem. As before I used my Canon 50mm f1.4, with a set distance to the target sheet and the settings on manual so that there would be no variation between shots. I took 10 pictures handheld and 10 with the monopod held as firmly and carefully as I could manage.

F2.5 at 1/20th a second was used to simulate low light portraiture.

I averaged the font size at which I felt the text was clearly readable. Without any more detail I’ll cut to the results.

Handheld I was achieving an average of around 10 font size.

With monopod I was getting an average of around the larger 13 font size.

So handheld wins this round.

Oddly, the sharpest image was with the monopod, so it can deliver better sharpness than handheld, but most of the shots with monopod were worse. So my conclusion:

I still don’t believe the monopod adds significant sharpness improvements on any kind of consistent basis. There may be some secret technique, but I practiced and tried a lot, but I doubt it. If you need to use huge sports lenses, then it’ll help you to hold the lens, but in a portrait session, it’s not adding sharpness.

I have previously been persuaded that it allows you to leave the camera in position while you look out from behind it to maintain eye contact with your subject. I now think that really good conversation, even with the camera largely against your face, is just about as effective. Since I believe that the less gear you use that you don’t really need, the more you can connect with the subject, the final word for me is that the monopod is out as this portraitist’s tool.

If any of you feel differently, then I’d love to hear from you.

Your obligation to the subject and why choose black and white: 12/06/08

People stuff:

I was looking over a subject’s photographs, and I had narrowed my favourites down to 2 or 3 prior to choosing my favourite for the site. As often happens when I’m stuck, I asked my wife for a second opinion. She suggested I chose the one that I was leaning towards as my second choice! That prompted my thinking for this entry. You see, my first choice had lighting that intrigued me, and a facial expression that was more quirky and unusual. My wife pointed out, that my subject looked more appealing and dare I say it, lovely in the other picture; she was of course correct. As a photographer, I am keen to take off-the-wall, different and challenging pictures. As a portrait photographer I need to remember that my subjects mostly want a nice picture of themselves.

I usually ask my subjects to tell me if they have any idea of the kind of portrait they would like, and almost all the girls say “just a nice portrait”. Almost all the boys say, “Don’t know – it’s up to you”. What the girls are saying is essentially, I want to look nice, and the boys are really saying “I want you to make me look good without me having to admit I care”! To be serious my point is this, if I want to do experimental and bizarre portraits, then the subject better share my artistic aspirations (or get paid)! If someone agrees to let me do a portrait of them, then the bottom line is that I have a responsibility to them.

If I was choosing for myself then I would have chosen a different picture in at least half my portraits so far. My favourite portraits are the ones with odd perspectives or angles that satisfy my need to be creative, and please my subject too!

Remember your responsibility snappers!

Techie stuff:

One of the things I get asked a lot is why I choose to process a picture as black and white as opposed to colour. When discussing this with my friend Martin, he suggested that digital processing means that it’s easy to just try each effect in turn. The truth is though, that I seldom do “just try b & w” for curiosity. There is usually something about the picture that prompts me.

  • If someone has really uneven skin tone b& w can take attention away from that.
  • If there are interesting or dramatic shapes that are being competed against by strong colours; remove the colours.
  • If there is a dramatic mood that colour might dilute then try removing the colour
  • If the picture feels nostalgic or old-fashioned then b & w can emphasise that

Even if you have spotted one of these clues and try b & w, it might not work, but trying every picture randomly would take forever, and kind of removes your sense of artistic purpose. Use it when the picture needs it; nothing strips and simplifies an image like monochrome. If it needs some warmth, then there is always sepia!

Keeping people relaxed and the monopod revisited: 12/05/08

People stuff:

A great portrait session tends to happen when someone is really relaxed and content to “show themselves”. Maintaining this is critical, and not always easy; how do you do this? Assuming that your subject is relaxed, the particular danger is that they will become more tense again as the session continues. I think there are two main ways that this happens:

  1. The session is running into challenges such as poor lighting, an unsuccessful background, pose, or setting. If you are involving your subject in the session and reviewing the results on the camera’s screen then they may become stressed by the lack of success.
  2. Tiredness and stress induced by concentrating on doing something unnatural like posing. You may have experienced this yourself while being photographed at weddings; after a while you can almost develop a “rigor-mortis” of the smile. The truth is that it isn’t relaxing for a lot of people to hold a facial expression while a camera is pointed at them. (The “serious” appearance of a digital SLR can make this worse).

In the case of the first problem, I find it helpful to increase the frequency of times that I invite the subject to look at the pictures when I’m pleased with the results because good results relax your subject even more. If I am unhappy, I simply tell the subject why I’m not yet satisfied and move on to try some better position or lighting etc. If you pretend you are happy with a series of pictures, your subject will read from your body-language that you are lying and they will be even less relaxed by you. Solve the bad situation and move on quickly!

In the case of the second problem, remembering that a portrait session is probably making most subjects uncomfortably self-conscious can be helpful. I find 4 things frequently help with this:

  1. Converse as much as possible with genuine interest in your subject.
  2. When people get the “wedding smile” tiredness or the “stares” which shows up as a slightly less natural version of the facial expression that you are looking for, then the simple trick of inviting your subject to close their eyes for 5 seconds and then going for the picture about a second after they have opened them again can really help. Closing the eyes and breathing seems to really help relax the facial muscles. It is quick and easy to do without breaking a session’s flow.
  3. Involve a friend. Getting the subject’s friend or partner to help by holding the reflector and joining in a 3-way conversation can really help.
  4. When someone is reasonably relaxed already, and you are trying to get that special expression that someone who is self-conscious about staring into a camera just can’t produce, it can help to have them imagine that they are looking at a “special” person that they love or perhaps would love to impress; this one needs to be deployed carefully as it requires a sense of humour as well as good rapport, but when it works it’s dynamite and really makes a difference.

Techie stuff:

This one has puzzled me a little. Some time ago, I did a test with the monopod and concluded that there was no significant difference in sharpness between the camera with monopod and the camera without. I failed in that test to use the camera on “manual” mode so that I was certain of having the same shutter speed in each image. Well, I repeated the test with a brochure photographed at approximately 3 metres with my feet on the same spot with and without the tripod. I then cropped out all of the background to reveal the brochure. I thought this test was better since the text in the brochure gave an easy sharpness test and the shutter speed was the same low speed in each one.

1/15th second at f9, ISO 400, 50mm prime lens

Here are the results based on 10 exposures with and without monopod.

The results were assessed as S: Sharp, R: Reasonable or B: Blurred

Handheld:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

S

R

B

R

S

R

B

R

R

R

Monopod:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

B

R

S

S

S

S

B

S

S

B

So Sharp: 2 handheld and 6 with monopod.

Conclusion: This result would persuade me that it’s possible that the monopod could be better in low light. Since this contradicts my earlier, (flawed) experiment I’m afraid I will have to go to round 3 and try to design a better experiment. Watch this space, I’d like to put this to bed for once and for all!

Intimacy in Portraits and the Role of Flash: 3/05/08

People stuff:

There are many different types of portraits. One of the ways we look at portraits is in terms of the transaction between the subject and the portraitist. Throughout the history of portraits it would appear that the relationship with the sitter has been a huge factor in the style of the portrait. It strikes me though, that formal relationships between portraitist and sitter historically reflected a formality that society itself held. The modern portrait has become a very much more relaxed affair. This is an age in which people can paint the Queen in ways that exaggerate her quirks and imperfections, whereas all portraitists historically would have painted royalty as “god figures”, often quite literally! So what defines this difference? I think the modern portrait is marked by a more intimate and relaxed transactional style.

So how does this “relaxed and intimate” style show itself in a portrait? When you flick through old portraits or look in art galleries, the sitter seldom had eye contact with the portraitist; in modern portraits, it is much more common to have eye contact, and in photographs as opposed to paintings, it very common. The advent of photography has contributed to this directly of course. If someone is sitting for a painting, the “intimate moment” of direct eye contact might be difficult to hold throughout hours of sitting, whereas it is simple to hold for 1/100th of a second. So the camera, as well as the age we live in has contributed to this easy intimacy.

So what’s my “learning” issue here? It is a simple question, “should you have direct eye contact with the viewer in a portrait”? In this project, 30 out of 35 subjects so far have had direct eye contact with the lens. I think, that these portraits generally have more intimacy, but there is something more interesting happening than the simple indicator of eye contact would suggest. It is generally true that eye contact creates more intimacy, although there are other aspects of body language that contribute to this as well. I f you look at the portrait of “Linda”, there is a feel of a “shared moment” although she is looking away from the camera. In a conversation with a friend, we sometimes mark the “thinking spaces” in our conversation with brief looks away from each other. The body language during these pauses is still intimate; the rest of the body may be turned towards the conversational partner, even if the eyes are not. So what we are trying to create in an intimate moment of photography, is most easily achieved with direct eye contact, but just as effectively with good rapport, and easy conversation with your subject, even if they are looking elsewhere when the shutter clicks. Now that I have realised this, I’ll be interested to see if I get more creative about eye contact?

Techie stuff:

Light! Great stuff when it’s perfect, hellish when it’s not; the portrait is made or broken by the quality of light on your subject. Unfortunately, when photographing “in the wild” rather than in a studio, you have to make the best of the background available and the light direction or quality that is present in the scene. If it is too bright or harsh, or the direction is not great, then you can use a reflector to modify it, but the problem arises when there is insufficient light, or when there is no directional light, (which gives interesting shaping on faces), what do you do? The answer is that you use the flashgun (or strobe in the USA), to provide some controllable, directional lighting, but there is a catch; using flash effectively is difficult.

Use of flash is a dark art in photography, (pardon the pun). It is also absolutely essential if you are going to be a success as a portraitist. Technically, a portrait photographer controls the light striking the subject; if the light isn’t good or can’t be improved with a reflector, then that means confidently using flash. I would like to share the one solid, useful thing I have learned so far: Don’t be afraid to use the flash, but get it off the camera. Let me repeat, get it off the camera. Did I mention it has to get off the camera! You see, the problem is that the on-camera flash built in to most cameras is crap. The problem is twofold:

  • The flash is too close to the camera lens. Interesting light always makes an angle with your eye and the subject; the light from the on-board flash doesn’t, it’s like looking at a face with a “head-torch” on. The light is too direct and harsh. This light will make the face seem a little flat and without shape, and will be unlikely to give a natural look.
  • The flash is too small and concentrated. Lovely natural light comes from large areas of sky, and is diffuse. Flash is like a “point source”, which means it is very concentrated, and will throw harsh shadows.

The solutions are as follows:

  • At least, put a tissue over your on-camera flash. This diffuses, spreads and softens the light and will help if you need some light to get a basic picture.
  • If you have an external flash unit mounted on the hot-shoe of your camera, with a rotating/swivelling head, then bounce the flash off another surface, onto the subject. You could bounce the flash off of a side wall and on to one side of your subjects face, or bounce it off the ceiling and down at an angle onto your subject. This will be a huge improvement in that the bouncing spreads the flash, and the bouncing adds directional interest to the light.
  • Remove the flash and trigger it by a remote cable, or a wireless remote trigger unit while placing it where you would like natural sunlight to come from. If you can add a diffuser, to your flash to soften the light, then so much the better.

I am using a cheap, Chinese made wireless transmitter that goes on the hotshoe brackets of both camera and flash. This lets me position the flash on a stand or held in my outstretched hand. The results are much more natural and give some of the nice shape and interest that side light gives. For example, my recent portrait of “Brigitte” used a flash held in front and to her right. The result is soft light which gives a graduation of light, and lots of interest across her face. (I also bounced the flash from a reflector, to spread and soften it). Please note that this wireless transmitter is fairly unreliable with the Canon 430 and 580 flash-guns; I find it useful, but I am now trying a different solution in the Canon 580 flash which will remotely control my 430 flash.

The trick is to use a manually controllable external flash, since metering flash is a bit “hit and miss”: With a digital camera, you can see instantly on your camera playback screen whether the flash has been too bright or too dull. With a manual flash-gun you can increase or decrease the power and quickly try again.

Avoid direct flash if possible, and learn to get your flash off-camera!

To learn more, I recommend that you visit the following sites:

Gender differences in portraiture and reflections on assistance: 18/04/08

People stuff:

You may have noticed that so far in the project, my subjects have mostly been female. I would ideally like the project to be 50:50 male:female but since my subjects are choosing each other, then I have very little control. To be honest, since I saw the female dominance emerge, I have started discussing my hope for gender balance with my subjects, in the hope that they will choose a male subject next; even after such hinting, they generally don’t. Thus, I am very aware of the balance of the project and I have developed a few thoughts about it.

First of all, the obvious conclusion is that women are more comfortable agreeing to be photographed than men. It would seem that there is a culture of relative comfort about self image and how it is portrayed among women that men deal with in entirely different ways. For example, women who I meet as part of the project might say, “I thought it sounded like a fun project and it would be nice to get some good pictures taken”. A more typical statement from my male subjects so far might be “I thought the project sounded interesting and so I was up for it”. Note the typical level of comfort with achieving a nice picture among females, and the non-mention of that desire among males. I should just say that all my subjects of both genders generally say “I’m not photogenic” or something similar, but I have formed the view that this is so universal that it is a form of standard polite small talk when meeting a portrait photographer. The big point though is that women will talk about wanting an appealing portrayal, whereas men almost never do.

So when working with men and women, you have potentially got to have a different approach. But I feel brave in this blog, so I’d like to share my growing belief in the reality of this challenge; you see, I am convinced that men and women are both equally keen to get an attractive or appealing portrait, but they are not equally comfortable talking about it. So another skill in the toolbox of a learning portraitist is to be able to work with men in a way that reassures them that you are looking after “how they look” but without embarrassing them about it. On the excellent (if quirky) podcast “The Digital Photography Show”, guest, Kevin Kubota, a major league wedding photographer, said that one of his big “secrets” was that he always spent time getting to the root of what the groom’s hopes and concerns were about his appearance in the wedding pictures, because Kevin doesn’t subscribe to the idea that it’s just the bride’s day, and as long as she looks great, the groom is happy. Kubota says the problem is that the groom cares as much about his own appearance as the bride does, but he won’t admit it; so Kevin spends time making it easy for the groom to reveal that he has hopes and concerns about his pictures, but without embarrassing him.

So if you are taking a woman’s picture, and the light has made her eyes stand out as a great feature, you might say “your eyes look really lovely in that light, turn your head a little more so that I can catch a few more pictures with that great light”. If you are working with a man, and the same light works the same magic, do you say the same thing to encourage him? I might say “That’s a striking look with that light hitting you, turn your head a little more to catch that light, it’s really bringing out your eyes”. The fine line you are walking is that when you take someone’s portrait, you are closely analysing their appearance and trying to emphasise the interesting or appealing aspects of that. Women seem to have a language and awareness about their own strong points and worries, which means they will spontaneously talk with you about them. If you let them lead that process, they will be happy that you are letting them be open about their self image and about how to get the best representation of it. A man has less cultural background in this area; he doesn’t for example, arrive in the pub, and have his male friends say, “Bob, I love what you’re doing with your hair”, and “are you moisturising, I’d kill for your skin”. He therefore, isn’t comfortable if a male photographer gets into anything resembling this, he will, to say the least, not be relaxed! So reassure a man that he looks good as the session goes on using language he will be comfortable with, and don’t overdo it; but critically, don’t avoid it! Your male subject needs good feedback to relax and show the best of himself, so use language that males are comfortable with: Strong, striking, arresting, cool, brilliant are the kind of words that might be appropriate here.

And finally, these observations are just generalisms, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, so please don’t be too offended by them; good portraitists seem to walk a tightrope in this area, and I just thought it would be helpful to bring these thoughts out for discussion.

Techie stuff:

This is a brief one, but very important. The most important piece of kit (other than camera) in my bag is probably my reflector. In about one third to one half of my sessions so far there has been an awkward shadow, or some overly harsh, directional light; the reflector has helped to shine some light back into places that the direct sunlight isn’t reaching. With the reflector you can also modify the colour of the light by using the silver or gold side. You can use a large reflector, to make the light on your subject softer and more diffuse than it would be in the direct glare of the sun. You can use it to fill the neck, under the chin with light to remove the harsh jaw line caused by high sunshine. In many, you can unzip the cover, to reveal a fine net mesh, that will diffuse and soften direct light if you can’t avoid it, and you can even use the black side as an absorber to reduce reflections back onto someone’s face, to create a moody, semi-lit effect. The reflector is in short, the cheap, wonder-tool of a photographer’s tool kit; so why don’t I use it all the time?

Well there are basically five ways to use a reflector:

  1. The subject holds the reflector for you, and you compose the shot to exclude it.
  2. You hold it or lean it against yourself while holding the camera in one hand.
  3. You hold it while operating a tripod-mounted camera with one hand.
  4. You balance it against some nearby object, or a spare tripod stand, (assuming there isn’t a strong wind)
  5. Some third person holds it for you.

Well the now-hackneyed phrase “it was a no-brainer” would seem to apply very well here. The only easy one here, that allows the photographer to concentrate on a steady camera, giving full and proper attention to the subject, while making small adjustments to the reflector/diffuser/absorber position for best effect, is to have an assistant hold it for you. All the other methods are usable, and I have benefited from them all, but a succession of friends of my subjects who have joined in the session, and held the reflector for me, have convinced me that this is a really flexible and effective way of getting just the right light on my subject. In fact, the ideal is probably to have two helpers holding whatever reflector/diffuser combination each the picture requires! Well, a photographer can dream!

More about Portraiture and Sharp Eyes in Low Light: 6/04/08

People stuff:

I have been reading “Portraiture (Oxford History of Art) by Shearer West” and wanted to add some further thinking to my first blog entry about portraiture. Apparently there are three aspects to a portrait and I have found them useful in considering each of my portraits.

  1. The outer representation
  2. The inner representation
  3. The transaction between the subject and the portraitist

The outer representation reminds us that the portrait has a degree of accuracy in representing the subject’s physical appearance. This is simple at one level, but then people’s appearance changes a lot and the portraitist may not really know the subject’s appearance well at all. This means that the portraitist might be basing their interpretation of a subject’s appearance on first impressions. Would a friend of the subject focus on the same aspects of the subject’s appearance?

The inner representation is more about what the portrait tells us about what goes on in the subjects head, or in their life in general. This can be portrayed using visual clues like props or setting, or it can be portrayed by the facial expression or body language of the subject. This isn’t about the physical accuracy, but instead it is about telling a story directly in a single image.

The transaction between the subject and the artist is really about their relationship. (I wrote about this in my first blog entry). At one end of the “power” spectrum you could be a prime minister or president commissioning a portrait, and there will be a respectfulness and formality evident in the portrait. At another end of the spectrum, you could have candid “street photography” where there is a one sided and perhaps “dishonest” relationship; in these there is evidence of the power all being with the portraitist. Another possible spectrum would be about affection or attraction. A professional studio photographer may not build affection during the routine of working with a number of subjects a day. A woman photographing her new boyfriend might have huge affection and attraction and this will show in the picture. These are about the relationship with the subject.

Between all 3 of these simple descriptions you have a sophisticated language of analysis for each of your portraits. Let’s take an example. Here is a picture I took of Katherine from the Scottish instrumental trio Skelpaig in a hotel where my wife and I were having a drink in Ullapool.

In terms of the outer representation: This certainly looks like Kat from my recollection of her in as much as that she has that lovely open and fun facial expression while playing her fiddle. Whether she looks exactly like this having coffee with friends I can’t say. Another issue is that it is monochrome. This has slightly abstracted her appearance since it tends to focus attention on face shape and simple features like hair shape and eyebrows. Other than watching her play for about two hours, I have no other idea about her appearance. I used black and white because the lighting in the lounge was horrible tungsten colour cast light.

In terms of her inner representation, the picture tells the story of a brilliant and confident young virtuoso relaxed and happy at her playing. The microphones add to the sense of competence and professionalism, while her body language says that she is outgoing and communicative at this wonderful work of music.

Taking the transaction, it is clear that she has acknowledged me as a non-threatening photographer and has given me a moment of eye contact to reassure me that it is OK to take the picture. There is clearly no relationship here and the contact is transitory but friendly. In terms of psychological power here, Kat probably holds the majority of it and she is being gracious with it as the musician in the “spotlight” helping me by putting me at my ease.

Looking over my 25 portraits so far, I am struck by how often my focus has been on the transactional stuff, with an aspiration to put subjects at their ease so that they will open up to me and share the session with me in terms of who is controlling the portrait. I don’t so often seem to show the inner representation by using situation and setting. I always ask my subjects to choose their own setting, but I seldom press them to explore what it means to them. As for their outer representation, I am very focussed on getting a flattering rather than coldly accurate representation of them. (This is why I found my portrait of Alison with her muddy face so unsettling). Perhaps this use of the three main aspects of portraiture helps me to define my “style”; but more of this in a future blog!

Techie stuff:

I have become an obsessive, anyone who knows me will be unsurprised, but this time my specific obsession is sharp eyes. Before beginning this project I barely thought about this, but now I need eyes in my portraits to be sharp. Eyes communicate so much about a subject! The problem is when the light gets lower it seems difficult to really nail sharpness in eyes with a DSLR on a large aperture if you are being fussy. (And you should be). As the aperture gets really large, then your “depth of field” becomes very small, and so small errors in auto-focus can mean that the subject isn’t in the sweet spot of pin-sharp focus.

I have wondered for a while what the best approach would be and today I tried a little experiment. I took four groups of ten photographs of a helpful subject, using 4 different approaches. All pictures were indoors in low tungsten light using my 50mm f1.4 wide open.

  1. Using AI servo mode with one of my Canon 40D’s 9 focus points directly over the subject’s eye.
  2. Using one-shot, non AI servo with one of the focus points directly over my subject’s eye.
  3. Using the central focal point on one-shot focus and then recomposing the scene while holding focus lock with the shutter depressed. (poor shutterJ)
  4. Manually focusing.

I was about 1.5 metres from my subject in all cases and the shutter speed was 1/40th or 1/50th in every case. I assessed the close crop of my subject’s eyes and graded them on the following scale:

Pin sharp=4, acceptably sharp=3, blurry=2 and really unacceptable = 1. I allowed myself half scores where I felt the crop was truly in-between. The results were as follows:

1. 3,3,3,2,1,3,2,2.5,3,3 totalling 25.5 which averages 2.55 per picture

2. 2,3.5,2.5,2,3,3,2.5,3, 2.5 totalling 26 which averages 2.89 per picture (9 results only due to blinking!)

3. 2,3,4,3,2.5,3,2.5,2.5,3,3 totalling 28.5 which averages 2.85 per picture

4. 2.5,1,4,1,4,1,4,3.5,4,1 totalling 26 which averages 2.6 per picture

So my conclusion is this:

Don’t try AI servo mode for portraits, it doesn’t give quite such sharp results on average.

Although there was a slightly higher average score for using the in viewfinder focal points right over the eye, it wasn’t in any way significantly better. So, just use your best (central) focus point and recompose the picture with your shutter depressed for most portraits. It’s simpler.

As for manual, the average score here was meaningless since it either totally nailed pin sharpness or was crap. There was huge variability due to the human factor; my 40D doesn’t have a huge bright viewfinder like a full frame camera, so I struggled to see the eyes perfectly. (This might be different for good light, a future blog). I believe that using a tripod and “live view” with the image shown on the camera screen, and zoomed in on the eyes, you would beat auto-focussing.

So if you have live view and a good tripod, and low-light sharpness is critical, that’s how I’d tackle it.

I have mostly used the nearest focus point over my subjects eyes so far, but

Photogenicity and travelling light: 21/03/08

People stuff:

I have just had a conversation with one of my favourite photography friends, in which she used a word that prompted me to choose the subject for this entry. “Photogenic” is an idea that I think is at the centre of being a portrait photographer; even 20 pictures into my project I would guess that the word has been used during every encounter either by my victim or by people commenting on the results. The idea of being photogenic at one level has to be respected since there are people who you can point a camera at and they will give you a decent picture with little effort, but I don’t accept that they are always the easiest people to get a great or nice picture of. If you can make your portrait play to someone’s strengths or most interesting features you will produce something that is far more satisfying and certainly as attractive as a photo of a so-called photogenic model. What makes a good photographer of people is frankly being excited about people; in terms of people’s appearance that means having a drive to see what is lovely, fascinating or handsome in someone instead of seeing what doesn’t look great. In actual fact whether you are into portraiture or not, it’s a pretty good way to live your life anyway. This means that those of us who see people that way have a head start, but those who don’t can start to practise. Whenever you meet someone, after a few moments think to yourself, “what do I like about this person”? Sometimes it will be the eyes, sometimes it will be a facial expression, sometimes a little odd feature; whatever, once you have realised you love it, build your portrait around it and use “depth Of Field DOF” or lighting to draw the viewer to see what you see. If you manage that, you’ll look at the picture time after time…. You won’t think “photogenic or not”, you’ll just think “oh I just love his smile, I’d love to know more about him”. So here’s my plea to my fellow portrait students:

Assume photogenicity, just analyse what it is in each subject!

Techie stuff:

I just want to reflect on something that I have been learning the hard way, and that is too travel light for portraiture. I haven’t actually refined yet what this means for me, but I realise that a bag full of gear is not what makes a good portrait session. At the moment I am carrying a Lowepro Slingshot 200 (over one shoulder style) bag with my DSLR and about 4 lenses in it. In 21 portraits I have actually been successful with only my 28 and 50 mm primes, (which I now LOVE to an unnatural extent), so why have I got the other ones with me? I don’t need them, and I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment. So I will shortly be in the market for a smaller less obtrusive camera bag that will take my DSLR and one spare lens because that would have served me well for all my portrait sessions. I actually dislike “footering” with my gear during a session as I think it breaks the connection you are forming with the subject. At present I occasionally have to switch lenses, but I can live with a little of that, just not too much!

My holy grail in terms of having a great connection with my subject would be something simple and high quality like a Leica M8 (dream on Matthew!) that would become relatively invisible and wouldn’t take much attention away from the picture taking. Since I have a DSLR I need to simplify by streamlining my lenses.

Now although I adore my two primes, I recognise that there are times when I could use a zoom lens to make framing easier; the trouble is my standard zoom, a 17-85 f4-5.6 IS is simply not fast enough. For any other learners like myself, that means it doesn’t have a large enough aperture to give you the shallow depth of field needed to control the features and the attention point of a portrait. I think the minimum that will do that acceptably is f2.8, and zoom lenses that can change focal length for convenience of framing are expensive. The other aspect of prime lenses is that the light path through the lens is relatively simple and so seems to give nicer, better saturated colours, zooms have more glass and so compromise on this too. I would like to get my hands on a Canon standard zoom with a constant f2.8 throughout and high quality optics; with one of those, I could carry just that and a single prime, but at the time of writing we are talking about £600 UK plus! Anyway, aspirations are good.

The other essential for portraits in any kind of direct light is a folding reflector; mine is a cheap one from “ebay” which performs superbly and is light to carry in its own zip bag. On days where it is dull or the light is guaranteed to be highly diffuse, I never use it, so it could be left at home, but if there is doubt, take it.

Finally, now that I have fallen out of love with my monopod, (see last entry), If there is any danger of low light, then I need my tripod, for example my last portrait of Linda couldn’t have been sharp enough without it. Again though, if you know the light levels are high, then it is a bulky and heavy load that you can live without; as before, if there is any real likelihood of low light, take it.

So, overall, take small amounts of gear and get slick at using it so that your subject enjoys your total attention instead of the spectacle of you trying out 3 different lenses and trying to remember how your tripod collapses into it’s bag. Now I just need to follow my own advice, as a real technology-lover, it’s a challenge, but I believe now that less is more!

Posing and the value of the monopod: 09/03/08

Well, another 5 portraits are “in the bag” and I find myself asking the obvious question, “am I getting any better at this”? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think I am, in as much as I am making fewer glaring errors than I did at first. I seem to be finishing my sessions with a few pictures strongly competing to be “the one” whereas earlier in the project it was usually more about finding the one I was happiest with. However, the silly errors are still there, despite mentioning that you shouldn’t use a superwide aperture with an angled face, I have done so on a few occasions since that blog entry: More discipline required I think, but it’s getting less often I think. Thanks again to everyone who has helped out with their time, I appreciate it.

People stuff:

I have been a little bit unsure about the whole business of posing. When I started the project I thought about it, and then realised that I was uncomfortable with the whole topic, so I put it from my mind and hoped that it would sort itself out. It came back to mind though when I was asking “Jess” if the session had been OK and comfortable for her. She said that it had after she got over her normal nervousness about being photographed, and attributed part of that to not being asked to pose too much. That set me thinking and so here are my personal conclusions. I dislike the idea of “posing” since I think it gives very unnatural pictures, however if you don’t give your subject a little direction then they will feel confused and won’t know how to be for the picture, result: stress! I bought a book recently through a book club, called “professional portrait posing” or similar, and although it had some interesting observations about eyes and giving people something to do with their hands, it seemed to wander into artificial studio type poses early on, and I found that very few of the illustrations said “I want to know more about this person”, instead they said, “she looks like a professional model, there is very little reality or “soul” in this picture, and I have no interest in meeting or knowing this person”. So there we have it; when I look at a portrait that I love, like many of Bill Wadman’s I see an interesting person that I wish I could meet and find out more about.

My approach is to give enough direction that the subject knows where we have agreed he or she should be, what background (if any) we are looking to use, and where they should look. As a few pictures are taken, digital scores hugely by allowing you to show the subject the results, we then discuss them and refine our plan based on that. For example, you might look at the first 5 pictures and say, the light on your face is very flat and uninteresting, lets try turning you side on to the light. Once you try this you look together at the results and if you like them, then you start to chat about facial expression and body position. By this point your subject is involved and your direction can be of the minimal “just look up a little bit to reduce that shadow under your eye” kind. If you microdirect someone there is a danger that they will feel “processed” and their own natural knowledge of their own face and image wont come out. I think the portrait partnership should be 50:50 in terms of who decides on position and pose.

In summary:

  • Agree a setting, thinking about background and colours and mood.
  • Make an early decision about light direction and choose your position in the setting to optimise the light.
  • Take a few “starter” pictures then look at them together on the camera back to start a dialogue.
  • Change or refine the position together and try a few more pictures, while giving gentle and encouraging feedback on how it looks. Let the subject relax into being his or herself within the agreed position.
  • Look together again and further refine, until you either have a few you both like, or you both agree the setting isn’t ideal, in which case, move on and try another.

Of course this is very general, but above all check that your subject is relaxed, and watch for any sign of stress and simply ask occasionally if it’s going OK!

Techie stuff:

I want to talk briefly about the use of the monopod. I travelled to Edinburgh to do portrait 16 and decided to travel light, (a blog in this later). I left tripod and monopod at home, and had a great session with plenty of sharp portraits resulting. On returning home, I decided to check what actual effect my monopod was having. In dim artificial (tungsten) light I hung a 600mm steel ruler on my wall, and placed a marker 1.5 metres away to stand on. I took 10 pictures with my beloved 50mm f1.4 handheld and then repeated the 10 pictures with the same lens with my monopod.

The setting was f2 throughout and I was using the central focus point on my Canon 40D. speeds were either 1/25th or 1/30th of a second throughout which I though might be getting into difficult low light portrait territory. (I know I should have then selected manual to lock the speed at on or the other, oops!)

Here is an example of the crops I took centred on the “6″ focal point from each of the 20 resulting pictures. This one was handheld.

The handheld pictures had 4 out of 10 at the slightly faster 1/30th of a second.

The monopod pictures had 7 out of 10 at the higher 1/30 second speed and so the monopod batch should have a slight statistical advantage, although minimal in practice I suspect.

I looket at each crop and assessed them as very blurred, blurred, slightly sharp and sharp. The example shown I assessed as “blurred”. The results were as follows:

Handheld: 2 “blurred”, 6 “slightly sharp” and 2″sharp”.

Monopod: 2 “very blurred”, 3 “blurred”, 3 “slightly sharp” and 2 “sharp”

I know that this needs a lot more experimentation, but I also did a series of 5’s or 10’s comparing different objects before hanging the ruler and formalising it and my early conclusion is:

The monopod doesn’t offer a sharpness advantage over good handholding technique; I’m surprised, but there you have it. I will now rethink the use of the monopod for portraits; I am convinced that it helps to relax you while holding a heavy camera, and it certainly lets you look out from behind it to increase eye contact with your subjects more often, but the claimed 1 or 2 stops advantage that I have occasionally heard claimed must require ninja-like monopod skills. No significant sharpness advantage!

So Canon, please put in camera Image stabilisation in my next DSLR that will work only when I have my beloved prime (unstabilised lenses) on that will autosense when I am using my stabilised zooms and switch the in-camera stabiliser off. Any chance Canon is listening? No, didn’t think so!

Knowing when to stop, normal lenses and aperture for angled faces: 20/02/08

People Stuff

Looking back over my second five portraits, the most obvious lesson I think I’ve learned is about the emotional ebb and flow of a portrait session and how the duration is affected by that. So far my meetings with the first 10% of my 100portraits victims have varied between about thirty-five minutes and two and a half hours. In the case of the 35 minute session, I think it was too short to get to know my subject well enough, and I think I can see that in the portrait. (If you think you can guess which one that is, then email me and I’ll confirm if you are right). There is just a very slight lack of that relaxed openness that I think I enjoy in a portrait. However, the point that I really want to make is that in my longest session I think I went on too long trying to get the “perfect picture”.

My subject indicated that she was keen to have a flattering picture and that while she was happy to be part of the project, that she didn’t completely like herself in pictures. I took this as a challenge to some extent and it made me a little too dogged in looking for just “one more shot” in the hope that a more perfect setting, light or mood would deliver. The picture I chose in the end was one that I had a good feeling about right from the first half-hour together. If I had stayed a little more relaxed about the outcome, and listened to my inner voice about what was already saved to card, then I would have known that my subject was tiring and that enough pictures had been taken. I started to see the change in her facial expression, and tried various conversational techniques to relax her, but ignored the obvious conclusion for a full half hour; she was tired, and we had done enough!

I think the lessons are:

  1. Spend long enough to see your subject relax, and become more involved in the session.
  2. Try to get at least 3 pictures that you get a “good feeling” about before the session ends.
  3. Keep getting to know your subject while he or she relaxes more and more, when the relaxation isn’t increasing, and you have at least 3 promising pictures, put the camera in the bag.
  4. Let your subject relax and look over the pictures on the camera-back to agree together whether you have something. If you don’t (unlikely) then leave it till another session.

Techie stuff

Since my last posting I got hold of a Sigma 28mm f1.8. This is a 45mm equivalent on my Canon 40D and other non-full frame digital SLR’s, which is more or less a standard lens. As I suspected, when the 50mm 1.4 is a little too telephoto, this lens is fantastic for including just a little more of the environment or background while still providing great saturated colours and great control over “depth of field”. My recent portrait with Larry illustrates how I was able to include his shed in the background without moving into any facial distortion. (Wide angle lenses, forty-four mm equivalent or less can tend to distort faces when you are close). I am really happy to have this lens in my bag, and can strongly recommend it. Watch out for future 28mm shots here as I almost used the pictures of Ossian taken with it.

The second technical issue that I have learned through error, and hopefully begun to internalise, concerns the use of shallow depth of field when close to the subject. I was using f1.8 or similar with Larry quite close up with the 50mm prime, and the results were good with clear and bright eyes resulting. I asked him to turn at 45 degrees to me to catch more interesting light, which resulted in one eye being further away from me than the other. The result of this was that his nearest eye was beautifully striking and sharp, while the other was dull and almost damaged looking due to blur. It didn’t work and I lost 3 or 4 promising images of him. I would now recommend switching to at least f4 and checking your results on the screen carefully if doing a portrait with the face at an angle to you.

First thoughts on portraiture: 06/02/08

Now that I have the first 5 portraits done, I thought it might be interesting to reflect a little on what I’m learning so far. I came up with the idea of 100portraits to give me a focus to improve my portraiture, and I intend to post some reflections after every 5 pictures or so. Hopefully anyone else who is learning to take better portraits like I am will enjoy this and find it useful.

I’d certainly like to thank the participants so far, when you start a project like this, you wonder whether people will respond positively to being asked to give up their time, and in turn to persuade someone else to give up theirs. I have really enjoyed meeting everyone so far, and they have all been great to photograph and very helpful to deal with; I’m sure if you have that, you can’t go far wrong.

People stuff

I suppose it’s stating the obvious to say that if you want to take portraits you probably have to like people and be fairly interested in them and in what makes them tick; I have always been like that and I suppose that is why I am most drawn to portraiture, (although I also love landscapes). So far the process has been that I meet with the subject, and spend anything up to a couple of hours with them, trying to get to know them a little before taking any pictures, although in Seg’s case, because there was a window of opportunity with better weather we started much earlier and just got to know each other as we went along; her personality is so easy going that this seemed to suit her fine.

I have taken at least 40 images of each subject so far, and I have noticed that the first few, say 5 or so, have not really been the most relaxed or technically well arranged pictures. This makes me wonder about the process of establishing a relationship with your subject, and how it affects the pictures. There are a few aspects to this for me, and the first is a question:

If I “ambush” my subject with a candid and technically good telephoto picture that they didn’t pose for, is that any more or less a real representation of that person? I have a candid picture taken of my brother which I like a lot, but I don’t feel very warm about it when I look at it; I simply like his facial expression and the mood of the picture. I think of it as a picture but not a portrait?

This might tell me something about portraiture. It seems possible to me that there is a kind of a “towering vanity” about the photographer’s role in this, and what a photographer is trying to capture is a moment in the relationship with the subject. Perhaps many great portraits are simply a way of stepping into the photographers head and seeing that person as the photographer did in the moment. If that has any truth in it, then the photographer has to establish a connection to take a picture of the subject relating to him/her. That would explain why the first few pictures are never so great, perhaps the subject hasn’t started to relate to you by then. I am talking here about facial expression and relaxation in the picture, clearly lighting and position will take a few instances of trial and error to get right as well, but that’s a separate issue.

I am also aware that photography being an art allows for many different styles, maybe you would rather take pictures that are colder, or have no personal relationship element, but I am interested in taking as natural and relaxed a picture as I can of someone, that shows the aspect of the person that has most appealed to me as a fellow human being.

So my challenge in this project is to establish a relationship with someone who doesn’t know me, in a short time, so that we can produce something together that is honest, connecting, revealing and perhaps flattering. (Who wants a prison mugshot)? So to summarise, if you don’t get on well with people, you might not enjoy portraiture.

Techie stuff

As I said in my intro to the project blog, I am in my second year of owning an SLR camera (Canon 400D, now upgraded to 40D) and taking photography more seriously as a hobby. I intended by the end of year 1 to be really relaxed about controlling aperture and stuff like that, so that I could develop the art, but 5 pictures into the project I realise that I’ve come a long way in terms of controlling my camera so that the controls become invisible, but I still have a way to go. For example, the portrait of Seg against the park wall has sharp eyes, but only because I took 7 or 8 pictures. These were handheld pictures at a relatively slow shutter sped 1/50th sec from memory, and f 2 ish. If I had used a smaller aperture, say 4 or 5, and bumped up the ISO speed, then I would have been more confident of sharp eyes; as it was only half of the pictures had the sharpness I wanted in Seg’s eyes. The point I’m making is that I was able to figure that out after the event, but when you are doing a portrait session you get lost in the relationship and the pictures, so you are more likely to make silly errors because you don’t want to lose the flow with your subject by fiddling endlessly with your camera. I think the lesson here is to internalise the question, “are these as sharp as I need them to be, and what do I have to do to increase the chances?” The result might be trying a few more at bracketed apertures, or bracketing ISO settings. Anyway, I’ll report on whether I improve at this as the project progresses.

The main thing learned, is no matter how awkward they are, keep a tripod on hand and learn how to use it. Handholding seems really natural when dealing with a person, but if you can do so without ruining the flow, set up a tripod when you feel that you have got a great moment or pose and the tripod will give you a lot more leeway to get sharpness with a smaller aperture when needed. My pictures with Margo were in incredibly low light, and since I met her after work, and didn’t want to carry to much gear to the meeting I was attending, missed out on the benefits of my new monopod; next time I’ll carry it in case, whatever. A portrait photographer’s best compromise is probably a monopod, and I have now added one to my gear on Mac’s advice. It lets you move around so much more quickly than a tripod and it is far quicker to adjust, and while it is nowhere near as good as a tripod, it is way sharper than handholding alone. Another benefit that Mac, himself a professional photographer, pointed out, is that it lets you take your face out from behind the camera while holding it in position to communicate better with the subject.

Finally on a technical note, although I have a decent basic zoom lens collection, every one of the 5 pictures has been taken with my 50mm prime lens. I have tried a few with my 17-85 IS zoom, and the image stabilisation is a real handholding boon, but as soon as I go to the 50mm, the nicer bokeh (backround blur) and colour saturation just make me keep it on. I am a prime lens convert for portraiture; the quality, and the fast aperture cannot be beaten in a zoom; I’ll report more on this as I go along. One issue with the 50mm however is that sometimes it’s too telephoto and I can’t get close enough to my subject. (On a Canon 40D a 50mm lens is effectively 1.6 x 50 = 80mm). To give me more scope for the project, I would like to get a 28 or 30mm prime which would be more like a standard lens (neither telephoto nor wide-angle) on my camera and would let me get a little closer in low light.

Please feel free to contribute any thoughts or insights, and I’ll reflect again soon. Thanks for visiting the blog!


BAJNFJ - January 19, 2011 - 3:54 pm

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Claire - January 23, 2011 - 1:18 pm

what a great project! I already have a 365 project this year so I’ll save this for next year, and so much useful advice too! I love how each person suggested the next…a lovely network of photos. Would be really interesting to do a visualisation of the relationships and locations of all the photos!

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