People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Review a portrait sequence

Brief

Set up a portrait session with consistent setting and framing so that the only variable will be the expressions and gestures of the subject. Concentrate fully on the person’s expression (and gesture or pose if they vary), assessing it from frame to frame in order to select what you consider to be the best of the sequence. Immediately after the shooting, write down as well as you remember the frame by frame progress of your subject’s expression, noting which you felt at the time were the best. At what point did you decide that it was time to stop shooting, and why? Next, open the sequence of images and review a second time. Rate them as follows: a) not good, b) acceptable, c) good and d) the best single shot, according to your judgement. How, if at all, did this later review differ from the way you saw it at the time of shooting?

Results

Subject: this is Laura, a friend from down the road.

I took over 30 shots but removed a few early test shots and obvious bloopers (totally out of focus etc). What remains is a good representation of the main body of the shoot. I shot in black and white as I felt that the white background and her dark clothing lent itself well to this style.

At the time / immediately after:

The sequence divided into three main sections: with bounce flash; with bounce flash plus reflector card at chest height; no flash (higher ISO). At the time of shooting I thought that the ones where I had managed to catch Laura smiling or laughing were going to be the best shots, and I knew that I hadn’t managed to do this with every shot. Part of the problem that I recognised at the time was the flash recycle time led to lapses in spontaneity. This is why towards the end I ditched the flash and ramped up the ISO instead. The middle portion, where she held the reflector card, had the least spontaneous/natural expressions, probably because the fact of holding the card makes it more of an artificial situation and so harder to relax. I stopped shooting when I was reasonably sure that we had about 5-6 good shots in the bag.

During shooting and in the immediate review from memory afterwards I thought the shortlist of best shots was going to be 3, 10, 23, 26, 27, 29, 30.

Proper analysis:

Once in Lightroom I took a closer look at the 30 images and saw things that I hadn’t noticed before. Firstly, there is a distracting thin white stripe in the black top in many of the first half of the set. Secondly, in images 19-21 you can see the black underside of the reflector card sneaking into the bottom of the frame (could be cropped out if needed). Thirdly, a few of what I thought were going to be the good shots (26, 29, 30) turned out to have blurry or out-of-focus portions that ruled them out.

However, one of the images that I’d remembered at the time as being a possible keeper, number 23, is indeed the one that I consider to be the single best shot of the series.

23. BEST!

23. BEST!

What I’ve learned

Broadly speaking, I do think I correctly remembered the better shots based on expression, gesture and pose – but what let me down was more the technical side of things, e.g. a few of the ones where I think I caught a good expression, the focus was off slightly – or the framing, like leaving in the white stripe or the reflector card. I put this down to using the remote trigger release and not (often enough) checking the viewfinder. On balance I think remote release is an advantage, as it allows you to get out from behind the camera and engage with the subject, but I do think I need to remember to periodically check what’s in the frame.


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Exercise: Eye contact and expression

Brief

Set up a portrait session in which the face is prominent (and so perhaps head-and-shoulders or torso), and over the course of the shooting direct your subject to, at times, look towards you and at others away. ‘Away’ can mean anything from slightly away from the camera to looking completely to one side, and you will need to give some ‘stage’ directions.

Results

Subject: this is friend and neighbour Phil. He doesn’t like having his picture taken, so I thought that made him a good subject for this exercise!

I took over 70 photos in total but shortlisted the six below that give an idea of the differences achieved. Note: references to left and right are from viewer’s viewpoint, not sitter’s.

1. Straight on:

First, a ‘looking straight at the camera’ shot. You can see that he’s not comfortable sitting for a portrait! This was from very early in the shoot, before I started giving him directions.

1. Straight on

1. Straight on

2. Eyes right:

After a few very similar head-on shots I started asking Phil to look around the room in different directions. To begin with he maintained the same overall pose and just moved his eyes, as in this shot. He still looks a little ‘posed’ but just the simple measure of asking him to break eye contact changed his expression (more quizzical) and makes for a more natural shot. I think his dislike of being photographed lessens if he’s not staring into the lens.

2. Eyes right

2. Eyes right

3. Down and left:

For this we were just chatting while I took the pictures via remote shutter, and he started relaxing. He got less self-conscious as the shoot went on (I guess this is fairly common) and as I’d moved down to his level (sitting opposite, off to one side of the tripod) it was more natural for him to look at me when we talked rather than the lens. He relaxed enough to start unconsciously gesturing with his hands, as in this shot. So the difference between this and the previous shot is that here I was just catching him changing pose and expression, not specifically directing him. The result gives a bit more character than the more posed shots.

3. Down and left

4. Slightly down:

I confess I then went back to giving stage directions… I asked him to scratch his head in an exaggerated comedy fashion, and he obliged. I did this to see if it would make him smile. It did, a bit…!

4. Slightly down

4. Slightly down

5. Turned right, eyes left:

He’d kind of settled into a pose in the chair, so towards the end of the shoot I asked him to stand up and sit back down again, as he would if he was just sitting down without a camera in his face. He chose a different position, more side-on. In this shot the stance, eye-line and expression make him look more pensive than the other shots.

5. Turned right, eyes left

5. Turned right, eyes left

6. Turned right:

This is one where I caught him talking, and I think by this point he’d forgotten that the camera was there and was just holding a normal conversation. as a result, this is one of the most natural-looking shots, and as a result probably my personally favourite. I like a portrait that gets over a little of the character of the subject, and the really ‘posed’ shots give a falsely self-conscious representation of the man, who’s very chatty and sociable, but just doesn’t like having his photograph taken!

6. Turned right

6. Turned right

What I’ve learned

Aside from a rookie technical error (wide open aperture plus manual focus meant that I lost some sharpness as he changed pose) I think this is a reasonably successful attempt at this exercise. I found this similar to the ‘active portrait’ one is as much as the more natural (and in my opinion, better) photos happened when the sitter wasn’t consciously posing, but had been sufficiently distracted into dropping their guard a little. I’ve learnt that getting out from behind the camera (using remote release) and engaging with the subject as a person, without expecting them to stare into and speak to a lens, can lead to much more naturalistic candid shots. These in turn reveal more about the sitter’s character than an overly posed photo.

I do feel like I need to slow down and make sure I’ve got the settings right before I start shooting – up until now I think I rush too much, thinking that I shouldn’t be wasting the sitter’s time. So obviously the answer is to properly prepare before engaging with the sitter – lighting, background, camera settings and so on. Every day’s a school day.