3rd July 2014 – Damien Lovegrove: Lighting and Composition In Portraits.

The year’s tradition of interesting and passionate speakers moved on and up with an evening with Damien Lovegrove last meeting, which was very well attended. Our thanks to Damien and a feather in the cap of the committee. Special thanks to Damien for his generous donation to the air show ticket draw.


Damien comes across as a life-long passionate and enthusiastic photographer who – and this does not automatically follow – can communicate with an audience. Once a clubman himself, he knows this audience and that ability certainly comes across in his photography. First rule of marketing: Know your audience. Second rule of marketing: Talk to them, not at it. It is all about communication. The story, the relationship between photographer and model, lens sensor and light, lines and shade, viewer and image, is key to the first impression, the impact. Damien does things big. That isn’t just about the size of the projected image, but the way the subject fills the frame. The intensity of the story being told is often ruled by it.


Trained in television at the BBC, Damien retains many of the traits of TV composition in his still image work and, of course, is quite happy to break them when the story demands. His first step out of TV was to bring those techniques to wedding photography. His guiding rule has remained the same. Keep it simple. He also made the point that there are sometimes several steps to go through, which could, of course, relate to a series of images. When you think of a wedding album, which is how most wedding photographs are viewed, there is a chronological order to the viewing. This idea of chronology can also take place in a single frame: think, if you will, of the use of dead space for example. Whatever else balance is something that needs to be maintained.


Damien is most insistent that his photographs are a journey just as he is a Get-It-Right-In-the-Camera-ista. These two propositions aren’t very far apart. That isn’t to say that he has no use for Lightroom but his style of work, grounded in Television which, of course has its need to get things right first time in live broadcasts. The visual grammar then boils to certain tropes (themes): Eyes are always off level unless intensity is being communicated,  the brightest part of the scene is always the furthest away (aka the “Bright Horizon”), if there is a lamp in shot turn it on. Knowing these sort of effects and operating them means less time in Lightroom because they are part of Damien’s workflow.  The outcome is part of his initial planning and the biggest factor in any final result is the initial set of circumstances pertinent to that particular action (Chaos theory if you’re interested). So if you know what your end result will be you don’t hit and hope, you get it right in the camera first. That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t shoot for Photoshop, but if getting it right first time is in practice then there isn’t the need to spend a lot of time on post processing. As discussed last week, time is money. Because the marginal cost of another frame is low – and there are occasions a-plenty when that is something to be grateful for – doesn’t mean that it is more effective to take it.


On the matter of cameras Damien championed the SLT (Single Lens Translucent) or mirror-less, he using Fuji and prime lenses  both for their compactness and, most importantly, because what you see is what you get. He likened the DSLR process to feedback, where you frame-take-stop-check the frame and the Mirrorless systems as feedforward, (when the result of earlier step is fed into a step occurring later in the workflow – and NO, that isn’t just something that you do post processing, it involves everything in any production process ) in this case frame-take. Time saving, he offered, is quite considerable. Similarly his approach to lens choice is how does it render the background? Is it what you want? There is a range of responses from bokeh to soft focus. His prescription is to use the tools that get the job done. Ken Rockwell wrote: “…Because it’s entirely an artist’s eye, patience and skill that makes an image and not his tools”. Which is true. A poorly skilled photographer is not any better behind a £5,000 camera than they would be behind a £50 one.  Damien is referring to the workflow, his workflow.


In the matter of composition Damien looks for lines, curves, triangles, shapes to give depth to his images. Curves, shapes, circles, in particular that which has a roundness to it works for figures, especially when contrasted against rigid lines in structures. He readily admits that what would get you marked down in a club competition, such as burned out highlights, might actually be a feature he is looking for. Shooting into the light and using flash or continuous light to fill in can mean control over texture and tones. He professes himself undisturbed by such concerns if the overall effect is what he is after. Hard light isn’t something he necessarily avoids, it makes faces look wider and reduces the prominence of structural elements. He is most insistent that the light in his photographs have a pleasing balance because, again, it means less messing around in Lightroom. Know your light.


Damien expressed a preference for continuous light, because of the control that it yields.  There are things that you just can’t do with flash, he maintains. It lets you set your lighting then move your camera angle to explore what alternative shots present themselves. You can structure the symmetry in your images by changing your angles in different ways, but, he insists, you must never ignore it, even when the effect you are after is asymmetrical. If that sounds complex he keeps to the mantra of less is more, you frame the detail, including how much detail, it is up to you to choose how and why and what.  Damien favours working with a backlight and a key light.


The most important thing though, the thing that all the mastery of all the technicalities in photography will not compensate for, is the relationship with your subject. It is the essential that the photographer connect with the person, it’s a working relationship that exists outside of that fraction of a second recorded in an image. It is too easy for the camera to become a cycloptic barrier, to get in the way of the result and in this instance it is worth reflecting on the difference between getting a shot and getting the shot. You can’t share the private moment you are recording with the viewer if you do not privilege that moment you are recording by getting your damned camera out of the way. I said above that the First Rule of Marketing is know your audience and the Second Rule of Marketing is to talk to them not at it. Pretty much the same thing. First rule, know your shot, second rule make your subject part of the process. Then you can go about the technicalities, moving your model, moving your position (eye level rarely is the best level). Shooting from below eye level lends your subject a sense of power. Shooting from above makes the relationship softer.


When summing up his approach Damien made the point that in a competition between perfection and soul that souls works better. Go with what works, it makes for better art. In a link into the next meeting, more of which in a second, Damien advised to look and critique as many photographs as you can make time to look at. deconstructing others work, incorporating elements into your own, is a great way to keep learning and keep improving as a photographer.


And the next meeting is about critiquing. If you look back on the blog at the WCPF nights (two entries) I go into some depth about how to. They are not hard and fast rules and Dan Ellis, who is running the event, says that we are going to look at the basic elements such as exposure, focus, framing and give feedback about those sort of things.


So that we have something to critique, please Drop Box mark by Tuesday a couple of your images so we have something to work with. The instructions how to are on the club website and 2Gb of Dropbox is free with your account. It is also one of those things that you wonder how you got on without once you start to work with it.


See you Thursday


Ian G.