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.
Two propositions to start with this week. Firstly, light travels in straight lines in a single direction until it hits a surface that changes its direction or other properties. Secondly, there are, in nature, three basic shapes: the sphere; the cube and the cylinder. Simple as that. Everything, I am reliably informed, is made up of those three shapes, and light travels in straight lines.
So to become a studio photographer: (A) Point your light at one or all of the above shapes and (B) press the shutter. And off we go. Shortest blog post ever ….
Er, no. These are three dimensional shapes and we, nearly exclusively in photography, work in a two dimensional world we spend a lot of time and more or less conscious effort to make the third dimension appear. Also this is, as was pointed out at the beginning of the evening, as much about shadow as it is light.
Surely that doesn’t apply to people, though?
Yes it does. When learning lighting it is normal to start by learning to light these three basic shapes. Cones you can make out of a sheet of paper. For cubes a box will do (doesn’t need to be particularly cuboid just represent a square in three dimensions, so a cereal box will do). A ball or even an egg will do for the sphere.
When you understand those and how light and shadow work on them thoroughly (many, many, many hours later) the rest is a mixture of experience, knowledge and imagination. And lighting, of course.
Starting as ever, with the rule of KISS (polite version: Keep It Short and Simple), members Rob Heslop and Mark O’Grady took us through a basic use of lights and reflector in the pursuit of some classic look portraits, not forgetting our model for the evening, Summer. Summer, her working name, was rescued from redundancy from a closing Ann Summer’s shop late one Sunday evening, some seven or eight years ago and who has since been kept in a trunk by Mark. Summer, I should point out, is a mannequin. We don’t say shop window dummy any more, that would just be rude. However, it is still legal to keep her in a trunk. In two parts. If Burke and Hare, sorry, Mark and Rob, are to be believed.
Yes, well, we shall move on.
This is one of those areas of photography, and there are a few, where the general mantra of practice, practice, practice, is especially pertinent. It is also one of a very few where control is total (in a studio) and thus results easily replicated. So are mistakes. It is something worth taking a little time over (and recording, see below) because there is even less excuse than usual for saying “I’ll fix it in post”. If you have ever tried it and wondered why it never came out right it could be that you haven’t had enough practice yet. Or you’re not thinking in such a way as to develop your practice. Enter the sketchbook, a pre-photography art idea that really helps individual progression. The basics are fairly straight forward and this can be a process of getting to know your kit as much as it is getting to know the techniques. I really cannot overstate how useful a sketchbook is in purposeful development.
Mark and Rob produced a set of low key portraits (members see the club Facebook Page) using first one then two lights and a reflector. The key element to remember is that an image is a balance of light and dark. Light is what we control as an input, but dark is where the story is told, rather the interplay of light and dark is where the story gets told. There is nothing in the light without shadow. No depth and without depth a flat, unflattering, uninteresting picture.
One important thing that came across was that you have to remain aware that there are two elements in the setup that are or can be mobile. The model and the equipment. Most of a shoot can be taken up just changing the lighting positions, or adding light modifiers or changing the angle the photograph is taken from and it is quite surprising how relatively minor changes can make for quite large differences. Similarly slight changes in posture can radically alter the mood of a photograph – I refer you to Gerry Painter’s session last year on posing.
Ambient light is also an important factor, especially with flash. The first thing to note is that the shutter speed you are employing isn’t anywhere near as important in producing the look of your final shot up to the synch speed of your camera. Flash is of very short duration, thousandths of a second, the shutter has to be fully open so that the curtains do not make shadows across the frame. This is the synchronisation speed and is mechanically limited to around 1/250th of a second. Most cameras have a synch speed of either 1/160th or 1/250th. Some top end models have electronic synch where the shutter itself is part of the sensor and electronic. The problem with this can be that it affects the image by being too quick and hence the subject hasn’t been sufficiently bathed in light. The same end as with the mechanical shutter but a completely different reason – the shutter being too quick rather than too slow. Synch speed is about controlling the amount of ambient light the image contains. This is true for film or digital.
It is different with constant light, of course, where the shutter speed can be whatever is compatible with the constant provided by the exposure triangle and your processor. There are other considerations with constant light v flash, especially in a studio environment, which we don’t really have space for here. Most considerations evolve around compactness, other uses and intensity of light. Layout in terms of initial cost can also be a consideration, especially for the occasional user.
All in all a very informative evening and our thanks go out to Mark and Rob.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Light painting practical.