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
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.
It’s all about the light. Not sure how many times I have written that here but it is but a small fraction of the times that I have read it everywhere else. It is also right and not quite all. It does assume that the thing you have taken the time and effort to point your camera at has a semblance of interest to someone else and that the tools of composition have been suitably employed or ignored-to-particular-effect to create something for the light to fall on, isolate, enhance and otherwise make your efforts worthy.
Our next session is light painting, which is always very well attended and makes the light more obvious by reducing the size, direction, angle, distance, shape and colour. These are the six things that we need to control in order to be in command of the result of the single most important element in making an image. Please making, because there is a point to be made that the camera takes the image we make. Viewed from there you can see why a little deeper understanding of light might be useful as we have identified it as the most important element.
OK so light without shadow is nothing and we could equally be talking about controlling shadow, in fact that is a useful starting point in itself. It is probably this fact that makes the number one accessory to buy when launching out on this path of painting with light to go with your bright and shiny new camera and lens combination is a five-in-one reflector, though there are pros and cons in using it which need to be mastered.
So there are a number of general rules that apply that are useful to carry around in your head, or written down in a note book – what do you mean you don’t carry a notebook? How are you going to keep a record of what works and what doesn’t; or things to try at a later date; or quick calculations of the effects of filters on shutter/aperture? – more importantly to use. So let’s use this blog to investigate the position of the light relative to the camera – just to give that notebook a nudge.
Think of a clock face with our camera at 6 and our subject in the centre where the hands (yes it’s analogue) meet. The light positioned anywhere between 10 and 2 o’clock is going to produce a silhouette and a light coming from behind the subject we would normally treat as a secondary light. We always have to add a source of light, called a fill light because it fills the shadow in, and that can be either a reflector or a flash or a continuous light source. This fill light usually comes from anywhere between 4 and 8 on our imaginary Rolex. Creatively a light coming from behind can help create a halo that separates our subject from a dark background but we always have to be careful to light the subject sufficiently. Spot metering can help give you an accurate reading (a separate light meter also has its uses and if we intend to do a lot of studio work or outdoor portraiture, then definitely worth putting on the equipment list, especially if working with flash).
When we position the light source(s) directly from the sides, 3 or 9 o’clock, we get a very dramatic effect characterised by extreme contrast. Unless there is a fill light/reflector on the other side of the subject, the camera will record the subject as being lit on one side with a dark shadow on the opposite. This can be good if you want to create a headshot with a hint of secrecy or ambiguity, less so if you want to convey glamour or a full engagement with the subject.
When shooting with light between 4 and 8 o’clock, I’ll come back to 6 o’clock – the camera position – in a moment, this means that the light is coming straight over your shoulders . This has a tendency to produce a flat light lacking significant shadow. Images with flat light often feel like they lack depth and never quite seem to be as we remember the scene being or intended. Basically light and shadow often require further manipulation using diffusers, scrims or in-fills.
The six o’clock position is where the camera is and light is at its flattest. That’s why so many on camera/inbuilt flash photographs look so unflattering. Either side of the camera, shadows are created, and shape/texture become more obvious. The width of the shadows increases as the direction of the light moves from the camera towards the side, which is why we see so many lighting set ups set between 4 and 5 o’clock or 7 and 8 – basically 45° to the camera. As a start or a go to you can’t really do better, especially if working out what is going to work best or working a number of angles.
And talking of angles, there are three basic ones between camera and subject, two of which are frequently ignored: that is low, eye level and high angles. By far the most photographs are taken from the eye level, which is fine but there are opportunities to mix things up a bit and which will alter the balance of light and shadow too. Easy opportunities not always taken.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Bring your cameras and tripods – 3D light painting
Taking someone’s photograph. Simple enough concept. A person, a camera, a photographer, a photograph. We might hope that the exposure is correct, the focusing correct and the person in the photograph recognisable if not by name at least as a person, as opposed to a smudge in a frame, a blur, a blot on the landscape. The technicalities don’t cover that, the story, the connection between viewer and subject. It could be the technically inept smudge, barely recognisable in some anonymous background, means the world to someone, because the person it is, or was, the world to them, or a substantial part of it. The casual observer cannot tell, for each of us, regardless of connection are pulled in or gloss over the representation of the person/s in the frame according to our own lives.
So much so passport photograph. Easy enough to gloss over the stare-into-the-lens, remove-all-distractions, flat-light-hard-lit likeness used for identification, though there are simple reasons for that style in an identification document. Its value is embedded in its function. It is a statement of who we are, where we are from, rather than an expression of it. Yet it is only an issue when we lose it or use it. The photograph on our photo-id is probably far more important to us than any other in the practical sense, but among the least regarded.
Take that self same fixed-stare, clean-background, no-distractions and Rembrandt light it. In reality we are adding, rather adjusting, the full-on photo booth glare for an unequal amount of light and shadow to construct a more pleasing aesthetic (More accurately, if not so informatively, we are subtracting light, but we will let that pass). By moving the light up and to one side we get a very different story. By doing so we immediately break the rules of passport photography, we render it bureaucratically void, but we make another, aesthetic, case for that image. The strength and appeal of that case is dependent upon the viewer, their literal and psychological perspectives.
Pull back a bit. Step backwards, zoom out which ever takes your fancy. Create a little space around your subject. Yes I know what Robert Capa said, and we are still looking at a plain background and the Rembrandt light because that is where we more or less started. What can you do with that space? Space doesn’t sound very productive, but handled in the right way adds to the overall balance. Essentially the way we use space in a frame is to give the subject a focus when not looking directly to the camera, so that there is enough space in the rest of the frame for the subject to look into. This helps form the question within the viewers mind as to what we cannot see what it is that takes the subjects attention. It is a well of curiosity and viewers will tend to look into the area the subject is looking into.
Space used in this way (usually asymmetrically) divides into two. The active space is the one described above. Negative space, apart from being the rest, and also being known as dead space, is what makes the subject stand out from the background but it needs to be handled carefully or it detracts from the overall image. As such this is all part of the rules of composition and the visual balance, which we last visited last two weeks ago.
Now comes the but …. Robert Capa was right. At least he was also right. Different crop, different picture, same image. Take a look at the pictures you took of Ashleigh, Becki and Keith last meeting (and thanks to you three for being such patient models). Some great one’s posted by club members but not a single one that couldn’t be made into one, two or three other pictures. Cropping in post is one way of doing it for sure, but changing your position, up, down, left, right, nearer, further gives you six variations of that first framing. Seven different pictures. Have a go in post. Just the cropping – at least at first, then maybe light and shadow – you will get two or three useable, different pictures out of the exercise. Then go find someone to photograph, natural lighting will do, but using those six variations to get seven pictures.
So, following the above, we have a Rembrandt lit square on image of someone in too much space. Time to move the model. Now there are posing guides and techniques – Gerry Painter did a very informative evening based on Lindsay Adler last season and Mark O’Grady and Rob Heslop did a studio lighting presentation back in November that showed a lot into a short time – aplenty on the web.
It is important to establish exactly why whoever you are taking the pictures for wants them taken. Business, fashion, blog, CV, anniversary, all have different requirements in formality and style. That really is question number one when taking portraiture – why am I taking this? Even when we are taking them on a club night for pleasure, the question is what story am I telling here? Mystery? Mirth? Sadness? Loss? Happy times? Want? Wanton? When Damien Lovegrove took a session a couple of seasons back, he was happy to show how a story colours our perception of the picture. That is what we allow others to see, no matter that their story is different.
There are certain conventions attached to certain types of portraiture which is tied up with their use. Corporate head shots is the obvious one that springs to mind. They differ from actors head shots in some small ways. Then there is the whole baby/infant/toddler/child thing. For all those expectations, indeed to meet those expectations, it is still the contact with the subject that counts.
Rule, and I do mean rule, one. Talk to your subject. Do not talk at your subject. The point is the person in the picture, not the smart-arse button operator. For sure some people have a very strong opinion of how and what should be done on both sides of the camera, however, this whole interaction is a bargain. A bargain, in the most colloquial sense, is the receipt of something that represents more than the time, effort and most frequently hard cash that we have put into something. Effort takes time and time is money if you need that squared away. It is an agreement between two or more people based around give and take and when entered into proportionally can produce something more than either party bargained for – in a good way. Good rapport is at the centre of any successful portrait session.
N E X T M E E T I N G
9th Feb 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Lyn James LRPS: “People and Places”.
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.
Club member David Jones was our speaker last Thursday, taking us through his fascination with all forms of documentary photography, one that stretches back to the 1970’s. Using mainly black and white, but also some colour, David has covered both film and digital and he was not alone when he spoke of the fascination of seeing a print appear in the developing bath. Things have moved on and certainly post production is much cleaner and easier than when using film. Whether that makes the final image any better though is a matter of opinion.
Documentary photography is pretty broad term. It is joined at the hip with notions of photojournalism though is not just the preserve of the professional photographer. To some extent photography is, by and large, documentary in its essence in that it is, by and large a document of record of an event. If you stretch the definition far enough. Is street photography documentary? Is environmental? The main difference, or at least a signal difference is the amount of planning and purpose behind a shot. The documentary has a particular theme, is part of a sequence or series. There is less structure in street and the subject comes to the photographer rather than the photographer finding and interacting with the subject, sometimes over a protracted period. Street photography is all about being candid.
The literal definition of candid is truthful. Within street photography we look for the truth of the instant, possibly more accurately a truth in the instant. Henri Cartier-Bresson was the originator of the term the “Decisive Moment”, when all the different elements in a scene gel together to make something greater, something truthful. The role of the photographer is … well, to be more precise, the role of the photographer isn’t. It isn’t to interact, it isn’t to interfere, it isn’t to order. It is to read the moment and capture the truth of it at the very point where it is at the height of being one thing and the very instant, the split second, before it lapses completely, irrevocably, back into the ordinary. It is the moment of clarity, essentially suggestive and very human, very fleeting.
David showed us some examples of contact sheets to put the whole idea into some context. The final print is just that, it is the process of selection, of exclusion of the ordinary in search of the extraordinary. Look at Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, they tell the same story. It’s hard work not magic. Cartier-Bresson was also known to study other photographers’ contact sheets (whilst carefully curating his own) and it is still a brilliant way of getting to know how a photographer works, if little harder in these days of digital. The key to this sort of photography is to be open to your surroundings, be apart from the action rather than in the action, taking time to let situations develop and getting a good sense of human interaction and detachment.
These last two may seem contradictory, but are two sides of the same coin in two senses. Firstly there is the notion of the subject interacting with their environment and the photographer as detached observer. This is pretty much read. The documenter shall not affect the outcome, because then you are documenting the interaction with the photographer, a different story. The second is about what the subject is interpreted as doing interacting with other parts and or actors in the scene, or being aloof, distracted or somehow extracted from it whilst still being a part of it – and unaffected by the photographers presence.
So far so (relatively) purist and, it has to be said, theoretical. Does it matter? Yes and yes and maybe and no (like the Mayor of London, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”). Yes because it defines a genre (documentary) that is distinct through its truthfulness and naturalism which speaks to integrity. Yes because by identifying with it we borrow on that pool of integrity. Maybe because as a genre it is a start in exploring and building our identity as photographers. No if the image is the thing and anonymity is the photographer’s aim. It takes practice.
Environmental photography, more specifically environmental portrait photography, is about contextualising the subject in their world. It defines, personalises, the subject through surroundings that are familiar to them. David showed us some examples, mostly deceptively simple, but drawing their power from that (some more by club member Simon Caplan). The subject is more aware of the photographer as a rule than in street photography. This doesn’t detract from the value of the document because what we are trying to achieve is a statement of the individual defined by the environment they feel most relaxed in. To some extent they are showing that off for the photographer, so their known presence adds to the overall effect. The trade, the craft, the politics of the situation all combine to make a statement, much as the photographer is doing. Permission is a far bigger thing in environmental portraiture, in that, by and large, it is harder to do surreptitiously and often is used by business for marketing purposes anyway. It can be commissioned by the individual, by magazines, by organisations as well as proposed by the photographer.
So why shouldn’t we give it a go? Expectation can be a killer of projects and images, fear of failure or frustration at not getting the results are very real. It often comes from lack of technique or an uncritical eye and the obtainable doesn’t seem good enough. As mentioned above, the contact sheet is a good way of developing that critical eye and even if not a single one is a keeper (see last week’s blog) working out why is a huge development tool. Thinking about what makes other peoples pictures work or fail for you is a good start. We will return to this later in the year, but for a short version take an image as an example and have a conversation with yourself about what strikes you about it, how you might frame it differently and where does the light come from? Do this out loud on a crowded bus and I guarantee you will end up with a seat to yourself.
So a big thank you to David Jones for an interesting and thought provoking evening.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Three way club battle at Portishead. Be there for 7pm, starts 7:30 prompt.
Portishead Camera Club, Redcliffe Bay Hall, Newhaven Road, Portishead. BS20 8LH
A happy new year to you all. We kicked off 2016 with the Chair’s evening and this year Maurice brought in a tutor to help us with our portraiture. So a good start with cameras and tripods to hand we welcomed Ruth Bennett, photography lecturer at St Brendan’s College, who led us in an informative, practical, evening.
The portrait, of course, predates the invention of photography by a long way, well about 2,500 years, which qualifies for me. Within the history of photography the invention of the Daguerreotype broadly signifies not only the start of the process as we know it, but also a gradual democratisation of the art form. It was still prohibitively expensive. The posing times came down though, as we have noted before, that probably troubled the dead subjects rather less than the living ones, as did the costs but it wasn’t until the 1860’s that the momentum really started to grow. And that required a change in technology. Shorter but by no means fast by modern standards exposure times, simpler processes, better image fixing to more widely available materials, such as paper, overall combining to bring the costs down and speeding up the production.
As the technology changed so did the scope of the imaginations of the photographers. Classical art initially was the ruler of taste and composition, especially the Neo-classical and the Rococo, but as the interest in and accessibility of art grew, styles changed, Romanticism and Realism developed as movements and it’s hard not to see that photography as a technology has an influence in this, at least as a provocateur – the French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire, thought it the “Enemy of Art” and was often rude about the medium at some length. The middle classes took up the form as it was more affordable than portraiture in oils, the number of professional photographers and the subjects they captured, grew. So did the uses of photographs. In the late 1850’s Carte-de-visite (visiting cards featuring portraits) became popular in France, then across Europe.
The first “Celebrity” photographer was Felix Nadar (1820-1910), who used optical and lighting, including artificial lighting, experiments to bring new qualities to his portraits of people such as Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo, Franz List and Claude Debussy. Nadar (real name Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) managed to fit in the photography around drawing caricatures, writing novels, journalism and ballooning and used his interest in the latter to bring the mail into a besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Photography continues to borrow from art, Rembrandt (1606-1698) lighting taken from the artists use of a single high window to give a distinctive light and shadow, Renoir‘s distinct diffuse lighting is practiced through the use of reflectors. The medium moved on but truly became democratised by the Box Brownie in 1900. Arguably this is the point where photography as art and photography as pass time part company and the whole question of photography as art takes a class based twist.
The interpretation/record debate takes on a mass dimension, but family, friends, occasions people in different circumstances still remain the important subjects but with less artifice. That, however, is a different topic and one we have touched on before. The other great photographic expansion at this time is also film based, but one where the images move and after 1927, talk. But the key to promoting them was the still picture of the stars, possibly as an art form at its height in the 1930’s and 40’s. Butterfly lighting came from the cinema, it is also known as Paramount lighting after the studio, sometimes Glamour Lighting. Loop lighting, open and closed (closed see Rembrandt link above) and Split Lighting come from the same base makes for dramatic effects in quite subtle ways using shadows on the facial features (an overview of some of these techniques can be found here).
The style started to shift in the 1950’s with the impact of photojournalism on the portrait style, though movie stars were still the people setting the pace – rather the studios’ publicity departments were the people setting the pace. The style was more raw, more like today’s street and environmental styles, but the output was still strictly controlled by the studios. That control thing is still pertinent if harder to control today, if only because cameras are pretty much universal. As the 50’s became the 60’s this more casual style of portrait became the norm as the conventions of traditional art were thrown down. Andy Warhol fused the fine art and photography in his silk screen paintings of Marilyn Monroe based on a publicity still for the film Niagara. Bert Stern, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn picked up the baton laid down by the likes of Bob Willoughby, Phil Stern, Sid Avery, Peter Basch, Andre de Diene who had taken up where and others had lead in the 50’s. The movement towards a more candid approach to portraiture continued. On this side of the pond Snowden, Bailey, Donovan, Jane Brown and others.
Robert Mapplethorpe, is probably best known for his homoerotic images taken in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but that was only a part of his oeuvre and he was, in a sort of full circle, influenced by classical styles in his portraits. Yes he was often sexually explicit, yes his subjects could include Sadomasochism but pushing boundaries was part of who Mapplethorpe was. Well not so much pushing as driving a truck at, but that does not fundamentally undermine his technical abilities or his vision, regardless of your views on his distaste for convention, ironically using conventional, classical, ideas of beauty to deliver his art. The sensationalism of this part of his work often overshadows the portraiture of many well known artists and he was never short of sitters. Patti Smith, Marianne Faithful, Bruce Chatwin, Philip Glass, David Hockney among many others.
The late 80’s and 90’s also saw the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber rise to prominence among many others, technology changes, the spread of affordable video for instance and the growth of and acceptance of installation art – we have touched on this before so I’ll skip it here – and with them the shared mission of portraiture to go beyond just the image of the sitter to some other truth of character and moment. And it starts with lighting, which is where we came in.
N E X T M E E T I N G
John Chamberlain – “Images from around the World”.
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