Our thanks to all those involved in setting up the portrait areas on Thursday night, in particular to members Steve Dyer, Gerry Painter and Myk Garton. Also thanks to our models Melisa Wright, Helen Morgan-Rogers and Bethany.
“Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses”. Wikipedia
The key phrase there is “Effective lighting”. Yes the pose matters and yes the backdrop or background matters, but the lighting has to be effective too, it is the biggest single factor. Let us dig into this a little bit further.
All photography is about the fall of light on a subject, I know. We are here weekly (more or less) in this blog. We are here every time we push the shutter button, for good or otherwise.
Effective – having an expected or intended outcome; producing a strong emotion or response. So, we are talking about lighting that does as we designed it to do and in so doing produce a strong emotion or response in the viewer. Or as we have said (frequently) always start with the end in mind.
This is easier in the studio than outdoors and in fully candid photography a.k.a. Street. It is true that beggars can’t be choosers, but this merely underscores the importance of picking the background first then letting subjects pass through it. Obviously we have to mindful of the fall of light and, if shadows are part of the composition, the dynamic range that we are asking our cameras to deal with. What we want to avoid is the background swamping the subject to we end up with unintended under or over exposure.
Outdoors we need to be more mindful of natural reflectors and flags, that is light sources and environmental shadows rather than the ones we create for the purpose of getting an acceptable shot. Again, putting ourselves in the optimal position and waiting for the subject or scout and bring your model along on the live shoot.
With the studio, as we had in the hall, then the preparation is just as important. For those of us new to it, on a restricted budget, or just casual studio portraitists one light can be used. Grids, beauty dishes and soft boxes can be improvised. Cheap versions can also be sourced (e.g. Grids, beauty dishes and/or softboxes / diffusers) but if we are going to use them often then we are better off on paying for more robust versions.
Poses are as established as any other part of art and the symbolism and interpretations that the idea of the pose creates are based on, or at least can be based on, the assertion that body language accounts for 55% of the communication between two or more actors. A photograph takes out the verbal and the wordage, the other 45%, and in doing so makes the visual element more important, makes the subject’s form and shape the only. So far so obvious, but the human body can express so much with just a few small adjustments.
There are differences in posing men and in posing women, based in culturally based perceptions of masculinity and femininity. As ever practice makes perfect and preferably with the same subjects. Posing in itself is a big subject, but in essence it is a form of composition, or at least a branch thereof. Mastering the art is still 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, and as ever, having the end in mind when we start can help us immeasurably.
There are any number of poses that work, but the pose itself may break an image but it is not going to make an image. The eyes have it. Engagement between the subject and the viewer make the image, the rest of the subjects body, that is that of it which is visible in the image. This goes for any pose, and any gender and age.
In putting these three essentials, light, background and pose, together meaningfully lies the art of photographing people. And here we are talking the difference between grabbing a picture and making a photograph, between reciting the alphabet of buttons on our camera body and writing with light. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though that won’t stop people trying to make it so. It is about two (or more) humans communicating to a common purpose. Even so it has its own grammar.
It is worth repeating that the image that works most effectively is the one that is the product of the photographers craft, not their camera’s algorithms. As was once said of the example of the great American Jazz player, John Coltrane, their “Must be a priority of integrity, honesty, decency, and mastery of craft” (Cornel West).
I think the same can be said of portrait photography, whatever its form.
Our thanks to Gerry Painter for a very informative evening, using his photography to show how to play light and dark using a basic home studio. Gerry showed us how to get great results using a sound grasp of how light and flash work, and the basics of posing your subjects for effect.
And it doesn’t have to demand a big budget. There are hacks you can take in order to get the look you want without, necessarily, spending a fortune. You certainly don’t need a full-time studio so you can use flash for portraiture, but a studio does present the peak of the idea of a controlled photographic space. We have touched on this before this season with club member Steve Dyer when we talked about a basic off camera flash set up, and I would suggest that post is worth a re-read from the point of view of building the hardware side. It also links back to two earlier posts, one covering hard and one covering soft light modifiers.
Photographing people is, quite possibly the major part of photography. Certainly, it makes up a large, perhaps the largest, sector of the professional market. What people are paying for is not, necessarily, a straightforward record, but a record of a connection, one that brings out their personality, a fraction of a life, something which speaks of them and of the moment. Even though we live in the age of the selfie there is still a perception that there is something else to be had from the viewpoint of another.
Even so, the motivations behind the selfie, which love it or loathe it are massively the largest by number photographs posted online, 24 billion 2016 according to Google, are not so simple. The motivations for those so bent on broadcasting their lives to the point of dying of it, more people were killed taking selfies than in shark attacks that year, are not just narcissistic.
Within this huge volume, the data for Instagram alone, and what can be derived from it, is far from trivial, there are, apparently, three categories of motivations : Communication – those who want to inititiate conversation; Autobiography – those who are recording key moments in their lives, not necessarily to bait a response, but as a record they can look back on in a handy format; and the smallest of the groups, the Self publicists – those with a personal or professional need to be “out there” and recognised. “It’s a different kind of photography than we’ve ever experienced before” (Steven Holiday, Brigham Young University) important because it is today’s social history for the future. It can also prove expensive, in more ways than one.
Even so, the basic human form hasn’t changed and that means there are more natural and flattering angles than others, and Gerry took us through some of the basics. First off there is not taking pictures square on, something you can sometimes get away with on male subjects, but almost never seem to work with female ones. And there is a big difference to be had through the simple expedient of shifting the by slightly putting one leg slightly forward, shifting your model’s weight and causing an S-curve. Shifting the weight onto the back leg Leaning forward from the waist and raising the chin smoothes lines around the neck and invites the viewer into the picture. For effect this doesn’t have to be exaggerated, indeed it can look slightly comical if it makes the model look overbalanced. This works for male and female models. As does crossing the arms, which with the other moves described, makes the body look more dynamic.
If the model is sitting then the relative height differences are going to become exaggerated and the crops tend to be much tighter. The leaning forward posture still applies otherwise the model looks like they are backing away. Elbows on knees will tilt someone forward and an accompanying tilt of the head makes things much more personable. In all cases, the eyes are the most important point of focus. If there is one other thing that is universal is the general advice that it is better to have the model angle one shoulder towards the camera.
Gerry packed a lot into one evening not least the need for a connection between the model and the photographer, especially with a model who might not be used to having his/her photograph taken. A lot of people don’t like having their photograph taken. A lot of people buy a camera to make sure they are the comfortable side of the lens. Our job is to put them at their ease. This can be easier said than done and the reasons are pretty hard-wired because the thing we as photographers are looking for is the thing we as individuals do not want to give away.
Experience in other fields leads me to believe that the single biggest factor is the attitude of the photographer towards the person being photographed. Put simply, the attitude you give dictates the attitude you get back. If you are wound up and edgy guess what your model is going to pick up on? Give out a “This is going to be a nightmare” and you get a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s as much to do with what we do before we start shooting as it is during the shoot. It’s about time spent introducing ourselves and what we have in store for our subject. It’s about promoting the shoot as a joint project either side of the lens. It’s about making being the model on a photo-shoot as something enjoyable. You only have to get part of the way to free things up.
On a slightly different note, regular club members will know that Myk Garton last year had a successful exhibition called AS I SEE IT at the Totterdown Canteen (141 Wells Rd Totterdown Bristol BS4 2BU). Myk has got the club a return gig which will be called AS WE SEE IT and photographers within the club have opted to show in the exhibition which will be in May June this year. This is a great opportunity to get and see the club in action. Opening times are 8 a.m. till 3 p.m. seven days a week, More on it as we get closer to the date.
Club Social with photo-booth and a bokeh table this week, the last of 2016. So we will talk a little bit about Bokeh before completing our examination of light modifiers, in particular the “hard” modifiers (that’s about the quality of the light not the difficulty of use), and wish you all the best till next year.
Bokeh is, I have a lingering suspicion, the best of , if not exactly a bad, then at least, an unavoidable, thing. It is points of light rendered by a lens in the area beyond the zone of acceptable focus. It has, by association, a certain dream like quality. Whether that association with bleary eyes is as the result of a blow to the head, strong liquor, watching too many ’60’s films, recently arising from a deep sleep or a biological need for spectacles I leave to the individual imagination and circumstances. That’s not the sort of explanation I am trying to provide. That’s between you, your conscience and the likelihood of your significant other cracking your alibi.
The shallower the depth of field the greater the area of view that will be out of focus. Bokeh occurs at the point where single light sources lose their shape and become mini suns or circular (sort of) shapes of light. The term is Japanese, meaning blurred or something that approximates to that. It is the product of lens design which in itself is limited by the laws of physics.
That blurred area, behind the subject in focus, is formed by circular pools of light where the light has spread out rather than been brought to focus. The patterns formed are diffraction patterns whose edges assume the shape of the lens aperture in the diaphragm through which they pass.
The shape (and number) of the diaphragm blades will impact in the shape of the blobs in the background. The size and smoothness are regulated by light source, focal length, aperture and the diaphragm and what constitutes “good” bokeh is purely a matter of personal taste.
We started last post to talk about light modifiers, specifically “soft” modifiers. So that leaves the “hard” modifiers. Probably the thing to note first is that hard light is the default with flash/strobes (I am going to use the terms interchangeably). Flash is probably the first port of call for additional and controllable light for most photographers progressing through the hobby. There are a number of pro’s and cons in using it. On camera and off camera flash provide some of the same problems but generally off camera flash, that which uses a separate flash gun, is by far the more flexible option and the one we will be talking about here.
More specifically on camera flash is more likely to deliver red-eye, demonising your subjects, the light is harsh and direct and can only come from the direction of the camera. Built in flash is less powerful than off camera, separate units and you can’t always control the intensity of light you do have manually. That isn’t to say that built in flash doesn’t have its uses, just that those uses are relatively limited compared to the more modifiable off camera varieties.
All flash lighting needs modifying most of the time, and there are four basic types of hard modifiers:
- Reflectors – your common or garden light modifying accessory, bowl shaped, they have a single but important purpose, to cut down light spill – light that spills to the sides of (a bare) bulb in a strobe (not exclusively) and when using umbrellas or grids. Also below.
- Grids – Does what it says on the tin. Black tubes formed in a lattice work they are very effective in stopping scattered light rays coming from the (strobe) bulb, creating a thin, relatively soft beam of light, which arguably puts it into the soft category I know, but I think sits better in this list. The quality of light is determined by the density of the grid (the number of tubes in the grid), while the size of the beam (expressed in degrees) is determined by the thickness of the grid. The grid is regulated by gates acting as barn doors, movable flaps on each side which allow for finer, narrower, beam control.
- Snoot – is a cone which focuses light to create a very harsh, small beam of light. Can be rigid or flexible, allowing for some control.
- Beauty dish – A small reflector, (usually gold, silver, or white) is placed in front of the strobe / flash, while a bowl-shaped reflector is placed around the light source. This creates a very even, hard light with an extremely sharp drop-off. Used almost exclusively in portraiture, it is very useful as a key light.
These are not mutually exclusive pieces of equipment. They can be and should be mixed and matched according to the creative need. They don’t all have to be shop bought, DIY is always an option, but for the bought stuff the guiding principle, generally, is, you get what you pay for, especially when talking about longevity. This in itself can be a function of the frequency and conditions of use, however when starting out, certainly a look round e-bay or other on line shops will throw up some “bargains”. The bargain is what you feel the value of what you have is.
There are three other essential elements, not, I would put forward, necessarily directly under the heading of light modifiers as they don’t work directly on the source. These are: flags, scrims and bounces (reflectors).
- Flags block light. Bought flags tend to be black material, some are paper, stretched over a frame with a small handle to make it easier to place on a stand accurately. Black paper and tape will get you a similar effect to stop a white or light coloured wall from reflecting or for shading specularity in shiny objects. Their primary use is to control light spill and keep down highlights.
- Scrims are panels covered in diffusing cloth, placed where light needs softened locally. You have probably seen them on film and TV sets, spreading tent like over the actors, in order to provide a soft and even light.
- Reflectors, other than the ones that wrap around your light source, a.k.a bounces, or bounce cards, can be anything that will reflect enough light to be useful, but are usually white, silver or gold material stretched out on a frame. You are probably aware of the five sided reflectors that also have a black surface and an opaque white that can be used as a scrim. Mirrors are frequently used, especially small ones on product shots. They are usually a way of lightening shadows created by the key and other lights. The type of material determines the light’s quality and, and intensity is a product of the distance from the subject and the reflectivity of the surface used. The black on a five sided reflector, for instance, is used to reduce the amount of light going into the subject.
And that, as they say in the World of Onions, is Shallot for 2016. Happy New Year.
N E X T M E E T I N G
5th Jan 2017 19:30 – Editing Images: Bring your laptops and challenge your editing skills.
Round 2 of the club competition last meeting and I shall link to the club website here where the winning entries will be posted in due course. Club thanks to our returning judge Roger Mallinson who got though 21 prints and 58 Digital entries in a prompt and informative fashion.
This week we are going to return to the studio as it were, and start to investigate light modifiers as previously promised. So, starting with the obvious, just what is a light modifier? Yeah, ok, it’s something that modifies light, a true but otherwise unenlightening answer which we need to look at in a little more detail. If we take the word modify we can use it in two senses:
- To change in form or character; alter.
- To make less extreme, severe, or strong.
With light the second meaning is a consequence of the first, it is also an inescapable consequence and though a tad obvious to some the conclusion is the same as the one that Mark and Rob gave us a couple of weeks back, that if you are going to do a lot of this then it is best to buy yourself a light meter. The reasoning is thus, every time you make an adjustment in intensity or distance (one and the same thing often times) then you are going to effect the elements of the exposure triangle and using the old saying: two measures to one cut as a guide, okay two measures to one slick in this case, means a lot of time effort and battery can be spared. For the occasional user then it is a case of trial and error. Eventually you will get to know your kit well enough to be reasonably accurate in your estimations.
There are basically two kinds of light modifiers which we can divide into soft light and hard light. Flash is the most likely entry point for a hobbyist into controlled off camera lighting. With flash we tend to use more of the hard modifiers, that is we use them more of the time, but both categories need considering.
The thing to remember, that is the thing not to get carried away with, is we modify light to enhance the subject. It is always about the subject, he, she or it, not about the modifier. Unless you are writing about modifiers I suppose. Still, that false conundrum aside we choose the modifier to light the subject, not the subject to show off the mod as a general rule. The subject is the thing. Always.
So this week we will start with soft modifiers. Another term for light diffuser, because diffused light gives soft shadows, that is the differences between light and dark look more a gentle grey than a stark black. Make no mistake we are using the light to create shadow. Shadow is the form of the statement we are making and without light there is no shadow.
So a soft modifier spreads the available light over a larger surface, that is, larger than the source itself . Smoothing the transition from light to dark on your subject the main use of soft modifiers is for key lighting in portraiture. The key light is usually the primary light source, the brightest and most important.
The two most frequently used soft modifiers are softboxes and umbrellas. Softboxes are normally vaguely pyramidal and lined with a silver, highly reflective material. They come in a variety of sizes and those sizes relate to how soft the light is, not how wide spread the light is. Yes, you are right, those two things are directly related. Most softboxes and umbrellas are used at a distance of two meters or less from the subject. Though there will be differences in the areas lit between any two given sizes, at these sort of distances they are minimal and really, really not the point. The point is how diffuse the light is, how soft the shadows are.
Softboxes are a studio staple but they can be very bulky, heavy, require more than one stand and generally take up a lot of space even when not being used and can take quite a time to set up. They are good for using with other modifiers though and also good at controlling light spill (basically light coming through at unintended angles which may or may not intrude on your desired effect).
A subdivision of the softbox is known as an Octa, octabox, octadome or octa softbox/dome . Octas, as we will call them, come either as an octagonal shaped softbox or as a hybrid softbox and umbrella. The angle and amount of light fall off is different to a softbox, but they do tend to be a lot more expensive and as bulky as softboxes.
There are further modifiers than can be fitted to a softbox or and octa. You can add grids (to give direction), flags (put shadows in), filters (control colour and intensity) to give you a greater control.
In case you are thinking, “Hey, I can make my own softbox” then I have to say, yes you can. The difference is in the quality control and the length of time that it is likely to last, but there is no reason why you can’t use tin foil and a cardboard box to put over your light source (flash gun rather than bare bulb, depending on the quality and exclusions of your house insurance and fire damage claims) and a plain shower curtain works wonders (make sure it doesn’t have blue tinge if made of plastic and yes it will melt over a hot bulb). Go ask YouTube, there are many different videos covering this.
Essentially umbrellas for modifying light as, opposed to keeping the rain off, come in two varieties: Shoot through and reflective. They are a little more untidy in the way that they deal with light, it will spill round the open edges. They are also prone to having a hot spot which may or may not prove a small problem. They are usually a lot cheaper than softboxes or Octas.
A shoot through acts like a lampshade, softening the light simply by putting a semi transparent material between light source and subject. A reflective umbrella is opaque, black on the outside with a highly reflective, usually silver, sometimes gold or maybe white interior. These are pointed at the subject so that the open side of the brolly is facing the subject and the flash unit faces the inside, away from the subject, to bounce light from all round the internal reflective surface from every attainable angle.
Umbrellas come in a range of sizes from small to huge (10 feet or more) and they are a low price, effective, portable light modifier. This makes them very popular. As already mentioned their biggest disadvantage is their tendency to spill light around the sides. Not a huge problem, normally, but one which does need to be attended to. Unlike softboxes there really aren’t any effective DIY options, but they can be bought pretty cheaply and so even if there was a DIY alternative the cost advantage would probably be very low.
Next week we will be looking at hard light modifiers and it is the club social, see website and or Facebook for details and Rob is doing a Bokeh session to boot.