22nd, 29th March – Peter Weaver and a Practical Evening

Apologies for missing a post, IT problems. Our guest speaker was the always welcome Peter Weaver, who will be returning in a couple of weeks to judge Round 3 of the Open Competition. This was followed by a video tutorial and a table top session. Peter showed us many instances of his own photographic journey and this set me to thinking about one particular aspect which we have talked around but not directly addressed in a while, that of taking pictures of people.

There are many forms this can take from the happy snap via passport style documentary through street to high art. For all of these we are going to use the same basic formula with appropriate, or lack of appropriate, vigour, starting with the background, putting our subject in it, lighting it then recording it. We are speaking generally.

So, background. Avoiding the classic lamp post/tree branch growing out of the subject’s head takes a bit of practice. Border patrol needs to become a habit when our attention is mainly on the subject, but that is easier said than done, especially when we are starting out. Choosing the background against which we will contrast our subject helps in getting this right. Not fool proof, but it works more often than it doesn’t and that little equation can be affected positively by establishing a routine and sticking to it.

Two easy to stick to rules for backgrounds are fill the frame with your subject (goes for all single subject photographs) and blur the rest. In the first of these we can either zoom with the lens or zoom with our feet. Perspective doesn’t change the same way when we zoom with the lens as when we zoom with our feet, as different focal lengths will handle background compression in a different way (sort of, it’s the subject to distance that changes in order to keep the subject the same size in the lens).

Putting the subject into a pre-selected background minimises the chances of there being unintended distractions in frame. Basically, if it doesn’t add to the story you are trying to convey, get rid, either by moving to another location, cropping tighter or changing the angle between lens and subject.

In the studio we might generally light the scene at this stage and refine with the model in it, which is fine where control is total, but we don’t always have this option. In more public and more chaotic situations, “Running and Gunning”, we might need to see what we are lighting first but this is really a personal preference and down to the workflow we adopt – not all workflows are automatically the most efficient but we are after the most effective and that means thinking critically about them from time to time.

Where ambient light is variable it is preferable to put the model in the scene, then light. Variation is part of every point on this process as each time something changes we have a different image and opportunity. Being prepared for the opportunity is a vital step in capturing it.


Posing our model is relative to the formality of the shoot.  The corporate head shot is probably the most convention bound of these as portraits of friends informal. Inflation of ego aside, it always amazes me that the item by which their audience is going to judge them most, the  corporate mug shot on the annual report, on advertising, on the web, commands such little time in the executive’s “busy” day. Herd instinct aside, the corporate headshot is a very conservative market. Everything can be pre-lit because so very little changes.

Admittedly there are poses to generally avoid because body language is very  specific in what it conveys. Posing is also gender specific, at least by convention, so we have the idea of male poses and female poses, which, in actuality, are merely what society expects.

Then the lighting. Lighting is as straight forward or as difficult as you want to make it. Essentially it is the interplay of light and shadow and it is something over which we have varying control over depending on the environment we are shooting in.

A home photo-studio doesn’t have to be expensive to build, and if we start out with flash, as many of us do, then we have a very versatile and portable light source that has many uses, the light from which can be usefully and quite cheaply modified for hard light (grids, snoots, beauty dishes and reflectors) or soft (soft boxes, umbrellas, diffusers and flags). What we get in the studio is control.

Light is by far the biggest factor in any photograph. It’s in the name, as we have discussed before. Its qualities are exactly what we trade in. That balance of light and dark we control has four elements: quality, position, intensity and colour and the modifiers are how we go about it when using artificial lighting or a mix. The portability of modifiers (well the smaller ones, a seven foot octobox may not weigh a lot but the slightest of breezes will turn it into a sail) doesn’t preclude them being used outside (and here).

As, more often than not, we are using a mixture of ambient and boosted light, the options for control are broad. For non-artificial lighting we have the exposure triangle, white balance and filters to affect the look of the light. We have exposure compensation, full manual too.

It is all dependent on the way things are arranged in the frame of course. Composition is no small matter. It is as important as the light, indeed it is at least half of what we do to capture our vision, that thing that grabbed our attention.  It’s about  making a statement, or taking that statement and making it our own, but remember : “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”

— Paul Caponigro