Archive for February 2012


Honesty in portraiture

February 29th, 2012 — 11:40am

Portrait photographers routinely deal with an issue I am going to call “honesty in portraiture” -  it has to do with the answer to the questions “How faiththfully does the image capture the subject’s personality and uniqueness? How true is the portrait?” -  the answer to this question has a couple of angles.

First, the photographer strives to capture expressions and a “persona”  that honestly reflects the person being photographed.  That is, the photographer makes it possible for the subject to be genuine in front of the camera. While this may sound easy and obvious, it is not simple at all.  The reason is that, in general, people behave differently in front of a camera manned by a stranger.  It is the photographer’s job to put his or her subjects at ease in an artificial situation and make it possible for them to show their true selves.

This image below of a father with his boy, which I created just a few days ago, does convey a sense of authentic and genuine closeness.  I used a white background to eliminate all distractions and added the bright colors to help convey a sense of upbeat energy.  I worked on making the boy and the Dad comfortable, and I believe the images does show them as they are:

A father and his son

The other important aspect of honesty has to do with digital manipulation.   We photographers are expected to make our subjects look their best, within the parameters of an honest, genuine portrait.  But “making our subjects look good” becomes a very open-ended task with the many digital manipulation techniques we have available today.  Not only is it possible to remove skin blemishes but also change bone structure and change skin texture.   While these techniques make it possible to make anyone look younger and healthier,  they also move against the spirit of genuine honesty that a good portrait should have.   My personal reference is to use light to accentuate or “hide” my subject’s body features, and to use digital manipulation in a very limited manner, so as to maintain my subject’s genuiness.

Of course, it’s possible to  move from making a portrait of a specific individual to making an illustration of an idea.  This illustrative approach removes all the constraints and replaces genuine honesty with an idealized depiction of the person.   I tend to use this approach when the image is no longer presented as or expected to be a portrait of an individual - for example stock imagery.

Here below is an example of a photo illustration that uses heavy use of postprocessing to convey the image of beauty over 30:

Beauty over 30

Beauty over 30

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Telling stories with images

February 21st, 2012 — 11:04pm

As a people photographer I need to worry about lots of different things when I am creating images.  On the technical side I need to make sure that the exposure is correct, the lights are properly placed to create the desired effect, all the settings on my camera are what I want, and  the relative intensity of multiple lights are all within spec for what I need.  On the creative side I need to worry about composition, perspective, shapes, lines, foreground and background - also need to make sure that the color palette used makes sense, and that there are no elements distracting or not contributing to the work.  Furthermore, I need to be concerned with my subject’s expression, making sure I am engaging him or her and there is genuine emotion and human interest in the image.

As if all these considerations were not enough, the photographer has to really worry about the story telling aspects of the image.  Story telling is not something that requires a sequence of images - although traditional photo essays do use a layout of multiple images to tell a story about something.   It’s also important to apply the term “story telling”  to a single image.   And what I mean by this is the answer to the question “what is this image about?”  - for example, consider this photo of my daughter doing her geometry homework:

What is this image about?

The answer to the question “What is this image of” is simple and factual - it’s a photo of a girl, about nine years old, sitting at the table and working with paper, pencil and a compass, with a fireplace in the background.  The girl is not looking at the camera.    This answer doesn’t tell us what the image is about.

Story telling has to do with the universal feelings, emotions or intellectual responses to an image.  It has to do with how we connect personally with what the image represents.   We can say that the image above is about education and learning, about healthy children doing their work, about the importance of mathematics for children, including girls.  The story is what we conclude looking at the work - hopefully what we conclude is what the photographer expected us to conclude - this is what I call targeted story telling - there is a message and the viewer gets it.  Sometimes the story in an image is open ended and ambiguous, open to interpretation, requiring the viewer to fill in his or her interpretation based on his or her own experiences and backgrounds.  For example, this image below, named “Polyphemus”  contains a story, but the story is neither obvious nor the same for everyone:

What is this image about?

What is this image about?

Does an image of a person, a portrait, have to contain a story? Does it have to be about something?  My answer to that question is most definitely yes.  A portrait must communicate something about the subject beyond his physical appearance.  A capture of facial features is what we expect from a passport photo.  A real portrait must be about the subject in a very personal and unique way.  Next time you look at an image, or you are the subject of an image, ask yourself - what is this image about?  And hopefully there is an answer, or more, available to you.

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Light and the human face

February 20th, 2012 — 8:22am

The human face is remarkable in its ability to express emotions. Sometimes a slight change in a muscle  takes the face from inescrutable to open and friendly. We people photographers are in the business of externally describing a person’s uniqueness. To do that we use several different approaches: eliciting different facial expressions, placing our subjects in a location that says something about them, and sometimes we simply use light to help us define personality and character.  Neither one of which is normally visible, but can be brought to the surface by the power of light to define moods.  Mood is not the same as personality, of course, but when we create a mood with light and other photographic symbols, the viewer infers something about the sitter’s personality from visual cues.

Consider this portrait that i created today:

Dramatic headshot

Dramatic headshot

Here the light, black and white finishing, and, of course, the serious expression, combine to create a more dramatic, theatrical headshot.  This is not a portrait of a pretty face, but an actor’s face showing character.   The light creates darks shadows on the face while chiseling it with highlights.

A completely different headshot is presented here below:

Sensitive headshot

Sensitive headshot

I use the word “sensitive” with this headshot because the drama and strong character present in the previous photo are gone; here we have a color headshot, using softer light and in color.  Plus the orientation is horizontal instead of vertical.  The subject is here presenting a softer, more sensitive side.

When I work on a portrait or headshot for an actor, we discuss ahead of time the type of images we want to create, to make sure we’re both on the same page as to the concept and what’s required to bring it to life.

1 comment » | Technical, Uncategorized

Finding and making light

February 19th, 2012 — 2:40pm

My apologies to my poor blog, I have neglected you for almost a year.  And I didn’t even make a New Year’s resolution to keep you up to date! But I found some time today waiting for a shoot and decided to update it with a short entry.  This will make it psychologically easier to add more interesting entries.

As a photographer my raw material is light.  Light falls on my subjects and is reflected by them in interesting ways… it is this reflected light that is captured by my camera’s sensor and creates an image.  Some subjects are greedy and keep the light they receive - black surfaces are the worst.  Some subjects are very generous and give back most of the light that falls on them… blinding snow is an example of such a surface.   People as subjects are somewhere in between,  reflecting a percentage of the light they receive.  It is up the photographer to use light in a way that says something about his or her subjects.

I divide light into two categories based on how this light happens.  The first category is what I call “found” light - it’s light that is out there, free for me to choose and use.  Found light is all around us - the photographer’s job is to keep his eyes open to find it and then use it well.  Found light is a gift, and my most favorite type of light! One of the reasons I like it is that I don’t need to carry any type of lighting equipment, just my eyes and my camera.   Found light can also be weak, or hard to get to…. it can be beautiful but with the wrong direction for what we need… so… it’s often the case that found light can be tricky to harness.

The other category of light is manufactured light.  This is the light that we create or bend for our purposes.  Found light can be transformed into manufactured light using light modifiers - for example a mirror manufactures light by reflecting the sun in a very concentrated and intense way.  Or a studio lamp simply creates light when there is no sun, using electricity as its power source.   Photographers tend to either love manufactured light or despise it.  How come?  Manufactured light in the hands of a competent photographer allows creating a vast range of options and feelings - from low key drama to high key energy.  On the other hand, when the photographer hasn’t mastered the principles of light, flash can be a frustrating experience and horrid pictures.   It really pays to learn to manufacture light and doing it helps us tell our stories.

Photographers don’t need to limit themselves to either type of light - in some cases we use both at the same time - we find nice light, but we add to it, or change it to suit our purposes.   This is one of the areas of photographic lighting I really enjoy - working on location with available light but imparting my personality and vision to the subject by incorporating manufacturing light as well.

In this blog entry I give an example of found light and another of manufactured light.  Then I offer a third example of mixed found and manufactured light.

Found light at the gym

Found light at the gym

This example above shows a location image lit only by a row of windows in front of the stationary exercise bikes.  The light on the older gentleman is beautiful and, with the camera focus, helps make him the main subject of the image.  The other subject is the gym and people using it - this subject is the environment where the main subject is placed.  The light here is protagonist and a key ingredient of the story - it highlights, pardon the pun, our subject.

Dramatic studio light

And here above is an example of studio lighting, all of it is manufactured. The studio flashes are carefully positioned to create a style that reminds us of TV from the 1950’s.  Also, the quality of the light, with darker shadows helps create a ’studio’ feel,  as opposed to a normal, naturally lit space.

Manufactured light mixed with found light

This third and final image is an example of a hybrid lighting approach.  The light hitting the skyscrapers, the flag, the streets is sunlight, either direct sun or in the shade.  But the light that makes the model stand out is a flash positioned to camera light; it is the light that creates the catchlights on her sunglasses, pretending to be the direct sun - she was actually in the blueish shade, but the flash makes her stand out.

There you have it, different types of lights for different uses.

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