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.
There comes a time when, like our speaker Ann Cook FRPS FRGS MBFP FBPPA, on a welcome return to Reflex, you have a considerable amount of work to reflect on. OK there is a considerable chance that yours won’t cover the extensive geography that Ann has been able to cover, but as that old Honda advert used to make the point about, to someone, your life is exotic.
What are the stories you can assemble from that work? In the term of the story, the narrative, we are often told – and it has been asserted here too – that a photograph can only tell one story or it becomes confused. That is the perspective of us as photographers, the makers of this story/image/narrative. From the point of the viewer we make our own story, of what lead to this, what this is and what happened next. As humans we are hard wired for stories, we make narratives if detailed ones aren’t provided to us and we will meld and fold the one’s we are given into new ones of our own. The stories are not necessarily complete, nor do they have to be.
The photograph is, in this instance, a pointer, a way post, but the destination is one of our own making and each and every one of us has a slightly different destination prompted into mind. That’s quite a lot from what is, essentially a subject, a fall of light and a background. Ann made a lot of taking the opportunities presented to us – those that fall to the prepared. As she said, again a recurring theme in the blog, you make your own luck. Ann illustrated that being shepherded on a bus, as long as you are sitting next to the window to control boarders (what’s in frame) and reflection, is no barrier to getting stunning vistas that go on to sell. Being aware and being prepared gives us a far better chance of being successful.
Even so, we still need an empathy with our subject (the imaginative assigning to an object feelings or attitudes present in oneself – being as one with, a part of, the atmosphere of what we are photographing). This because not everything that drives the narrative in a photograph is visual. We often hear talk of “Connection” and that, more often than not, is driven by composition. Back to that old thing again, for sure, however, the arrangements of objects within a frame is a very powerful driver of viewer connection with a photograph.
Lines, for instance, have different emotional qualities (at least in art theory), depending on their shape and direction. So: converge parallel lines to create a vanishing point (a concept that has been around since the Renaissance) to create depth and perspective; diagonals are dynamic, suggestive of movement and change; horizontals give a composition a sense of quiet and peace; vertical lines feel powerful, solid, permanent; straight lines feel formal, deliberate, man-made; curved lines, especially an S-shape, feel casual and add sophistication, nature, grace. Shape, similarly, has a profound impact on the feel and connection of an image, as does the use of space.
These are all tools, and there are many more and they are there for learning and there for using even there for ignoring but the thing these three attitudes have in common is deliberation. Being deliberate about the way we frame and organise objects for impact on our viewers. The fact is that to photograph that thing in our minds eye we need to become fixed on the essence of the thing we are looking at and then become a problem solver, just like Ann’s bus problem, which gives a different prospective on Kappa’s assertion that if it’s not good enough it’s because we aren’t close enough (in this case to a window to prevent reflections and stray elbows).
These last two paragraphs may look like separate and only vaguely related points, but they are not. In order to visualise those concepts of line, shape and space we have to be looking for them. Ann’s two pictures from Angkor Wat, one of the temples and one of the crowd that had gathered to look at the temples, were taken from different angles but from the same spot. One is quite serene the other very crowded and busy. They each have a different tempo. The one has a diagonal line of the rising sun behind the black mass of the unlit temple, the transition between night and day. The other, a huddle following the natural curve of the shore line several rows deep feels much more energised. The lines of people become a shape of its own. To get the crowd picture Ann had to wait for the crowds to thin, to keep the impression of the press of humanity but also to make it something that the eye can relate to. Incidental or otherwise the fact is the contrast between the two photographs made for a tension that one without the other simply did not have. OK the crowd scene was never going to be anything other than a throw away line, but it told a truth that the sunrise picture did not.
Ann had us look and decide which versions we preferred on many of the images she presented between a colour version and a black and white. The black and whites seemed to take on more from the interaction of shapes and of course there was a fair split in preferences. Basically the advice in these digital days is shoot in colour and process suitable images to black and white. The choice is a lot easier if we start with the idea that what we have is a black and white photograph. The conventional technical wisdom is shoot in colour and process in black and white, but in order to bring these two things together it is useful to know what are the effects of choosing monochrome.
Black and white is a bit of a misnomer as what we are truly looking at is pretty much everything in between. Absolute black is one end of the theoretical scale and absolute white its opposite. We render the images through the tonal contrast that colour produces when converted to shades of grey. There are a lot more than 50. You can desaturate your colour image and adjust the contrast accordingly, you can play with colour channels (subtle rather than huge effects usually) or you can go through the camera’s black and white options, they pretty much all have them, but they will all be jpeg. Some may be DNG or TIFF files, but that is a function of your camera. There is the HER route, or the filter routes that you can apply through apps like Snap seed, photofunia, funny.pho.to/ etc etc. Above all monochrome tends to make more of shape and line by taking information out about colour, but as with everything else it is a matter of personal taste. Black and white will not overcome bad composition or lighting.
So, a lot to think about, Ann Cook, thank you for another interesting and stimulating evening.