People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: An active portrait

Brief

Take a series of photos of a subject who is engaged in some activity or other. The point of having an activity is to preoccupy your subject, and if this can be achieved without too much movement or changes in location, so much the better. As this is primarily a portrait exercise rather than an exercise in reportage, try not to get distracted by the demands of showing how the actions are performed — concentrate instead on the person and the facial expression.

Results

Subject: this is Russell, a joiner who’s done lots of work on our house over the years, and is currently working around the corner for our neighbours.

Here are the shortlisted pics with a little commentary on each. What I consider to the the best overall shot is enlarged at the end.

 Sawing 1 & 2:

The idea here was to show some actual physical work typical of his trade. In both I tried to use a slightly slow shutter speed to get a bit of motion blur on the arm. I’m not sure I got this right; there’s enough blur to be noticeable in the image but maybe not quite enough to really denote movement. In terms of composition, 1 has the cleaner background but 2 makes better use of the lines and shapes in the frame. In both there isn’t enough of his face.

Working 1 & 2:

In the first of these two I wanted to show a more upright position, and in the second I wanted to zoom in closer on the face. However, neither is wholly successful for similar reasons to the sawing pics: not enough of the face, so you can’t get a feel for the facial expression. By this point I was beginning to realise that his work is inherently inclined towards facing walls and/or looking down… No. 2 in particular is weak as there is no context on what he’s working on – it’s just a picture of a bloke leaning over.

Thinking 1 & 2:

I felt these were the most successful of the set. Even though he isn’t very ‘active’, he is working, albeit in more of a mental capacity: he’s standing back, checking what he’s done, and planning his next move. I found these pics much better at giving a feel for the person as you get to see more of the face. The pencil behind the ear gives the clue to his trade – more subtle than a saw or a hammer – and I deliberately left a bit of space to the right for him to be staring into. 1 has more tonal detail but 2 has a cleaner background.

So my preferred shot of the lot is the one below.

Thinking 2

Thinking 2

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned that you can get much more natural-looking pictures of people by NOT asking them to specifically pose. Letting them get on with doing their own thing and forget that the camera is there can be a useful technique.

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Exercise: Experimenting with light

Brief

Take between four and six standard head and shoulders portraits of the same subject that are very different in lighting effect. Find locations in which the light varies and is suitable for taking a portrait photograph. With tight framing the distraction of the setting is eliminated so that the shape and planes of the face will clearly show differences in shadows, highlights and the general quality and direction of light.

Results

Subject: this is Mo, a friend and neighbour who kindly gave up her time to help me out on this.

1. Natural Light, Full Sun:

The late afternoon sun was getting low but not quite setting, so while it’s not a full ‘golden hour’ wash of colour, there is a warmth to the skin tones that I thought really suited the smiling expression.

Natural Light, Full Sun

Natural Light, Full Sun

2. Natural Light, Shade:

Although only a minute or so apart, the tone on this is noticeably cooler and bluer than the first photo, as I asked Mo to move into a more shaded area of the garden. Again I tried to match to the choice of pose/expression to the overall tone – cooler, more distant.

Natural Light, Shade

Natural Light, Shade

3.  Window Light + Bounce Flash:

In front of a west-facing bay window, letting in light to the rear and the two sides, augmented by a hotshoe flash aimed at the ceiling. This gave me a reasonably consistent light coverage to the face, with no major areas of shadow, whilst keeping a little edge lighting through the hair. This is probably the best all-round neutral, faithful rendition of the subject.

Window Light + Bounce Flash

Window Light + Bounce Flash

4. Bounce Flash + White Card:

I moved Mo out of the light of the window and to the corner of the room, where white walls meet. Again I used bounce flash off the white ceiling, and this time asked her to hold a white reflector card just out of shot. I actually think the white card, added to the white walls and ceiling reflections, made the resultant picture slightly too pale and cool.

Bounce Flash + White Card

Bounce Flash + White Card

5. Tungsten Side Lighting:

By positioning a tungsten lamp directly to one side I lit just one half of the face. The light is quite harsh and unforgiving – it brings out some redness in the skin – and I thought this treatment really suited a closely cropped shot of the face with a calm, neutral expression. Although I don’t actually think this is a good likeness, I really like this shot! (not sure Mo agrees…)

Tungsten Side Lighting

Tungsten Side Lighting

6. Candlelight:

Although superficially a little similar to the previous shot, the light provided by candles is warmer and softer. Shadows fall across parts of the face but not harsh shadows, so the overall effect is warmer (more orangey-yellow) than in the previous image.

Candlelight

Candlelight

What I’ve learned

The results were quite interesting I thought. Although all photos were taken over about a half-hour period, the changes in lighting (and framing and posing) gave me quite a varied set of images. Some don’t even look to be of the same person at first glance! It’s amazing how much of a difference the lighting can make, and I don’t think there are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ lighting choices, it’s all about the intent. For example, to flatter the subject and literally ‘show them in the best light’ I’d choose something like 1 or 3, with even light smoothing out the facial features; but if the brief was (for example) for a weekend magazine cover for a feature about “the real person beneath the public persona” then the stark lighting of number 5 would meet that objective.

What I’ve really learned is how to use different types and qualities of light to achieve certain effects. There was similar exercises in the Light section of Art of Photography, but applying the concepts to people is bringing a whole new level of realisation.


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Exercise: Portrait scale and setting

Brief

Find a suitably attractive setting and take portraits to the following scales:

  • Face, cropped close
  • Head and shoulders
  • Torso
  • Full length

Select the most successful images from each of the four subject areas, and consider how a viewer will react to each portrait in terms of the weight of attention to different elements.

Quick disclaimer: I decided to get cracking on this first exercise before doing too much reading and research. This way I’ll have a benchmark on where I am at the start of this section. I hope to see an improvement over time that will make me look back on this exercise and maybe cringe a little – this will mean I have progressed! I may even re-do this exercise later when I’m feeling more educated… but for now, this is my standard, for better or worse!

Results

Setting: I thought this kitchen was suitably attractive and appropriate for an informal portrait – well, before I saw the end result I did anyway (see notes below on backgrounds).

Subject: this is Mike, my very good mate from down the road.

I shot over 50 images in total but many were similar. I got it down to a shortlist of 12 shots. Below I’ll whizz through the options and at the end I’ll select what I believe the best in each group.

Note that all these are straight out of camera, with the exception of the two final crops.

Face, cropped close:

  1. I used the available light, including ceiling mounted spotlights, which cast distracting light and shade onto the face; also, the crop isn’t really tight enough
  2. With spotlights off and diffused flash bounced off the ceiling and the light is more even; the crop is tighter on the face

Head and shoulders:

  1. Too far back, too much background; ceiling lights creating unwelcome light/shade patches
  2. Composition better and he’s smiling – but ceiling lights still casting patches of light and shadow onto skin
  3. With bounced flash but with ceiling spots still on – still not right
  4. Lights off, bounced flash only, and like the close face shot the skin tone is now much more even

Torso:

  1. Again I started with the available room lighting but in this instance switched to a vertical format – again, shiny patches where the spotlights catch the skin; on the plus side, good facial expression
  2. With diffused bounced flash – better skin tones, but more serious face; also, messy background elements
  3. As per 2 but framed slightly tighter from the bottom edge… I prefer the framing but the flash has made the skin a little paler and blown the highlight a bit on the mug

Full length:

Lighting is same on all three so differences are composition only:

  1. This has the most serious expression…
  2. This has a smile…
  3. And this is the least traditional pose, with the face partly obscured – but the eye contact is still there

Selection:

Face, cropped close:

Close

Close

Closer crop looks better to me, and light is more even. The focus is on the eyes as it should be, and a very shallow depth of field makes the rest of the features soften from fairly close to the radius of the eye area. The background is suitably blurred so as not to detract. The viewer will lock onto the eyes.

Head and shoulders:

Head & shoulders

Head & shoulders

A little like the first, the lighting and the shallow depth of field help the focal points to stand out. Again, the eyes should be the first thing the viewer rests on, then to a lesser degree the whole face shape. The background isn’t too distracting.

Torso:

Torso

Torso

This is the ‘least-bad’ of my options here: I prefer the vertical ratio (I should have taken more this way on) as it better fills the space and reduces the distraction of the background, so helping the view to focus on – I believe – the eyes, then the whole face, then the mug. Yes, the light across the face is a little distracting but if I had to work with this, I could improve it a little in post-processing. The background is still too busy and I should have either chosen another location or moved Mike further away to help the background melt into blur.

Torso - crop

Torso – crop

In terms of composition, with hindsight I should have repositioned the camera to keep the three cups (above the head) out of frame. Cropped version above gives an idea of this.

Full length:

Full

Full

Again, the best of the bunch but not a successful shot. In all of the options I placed him too far to the right of the frame, making this look like an advert for the oven… at least in this one the fact that he is drinking and looking over the top of the mug add a little more focal interest. I hope a viewer would see first the eyes, then the mug, then scan down the body (or they could of course just stare at the oven, which wasn’t my intention). As per the last one, moving Mike further away would have helped to separate the subject from the background significantly.

Full - cropped

Full – cropped

Again, framing wise I should have gone in closer to remove distractions in the top of the frame, as per crop above. Cropping tighter also makes the subject move a little towards the centre, and so less oven-centric.

What I’ve learned

A few things!

  • Light: identify, work with and where possible control the light sources – keep looking at how they are rendering the subject
  • Background: keep the subject off the background to achieve the right depth-of-field separation that makes the viewer focus on the person not the background (unless it is a contextual portrait)
  • Background: watch out for distracting elements, ideally before the shoot but look around the subject before pressing the shutter too
  • Framing: generally, better to fill the frame with the subject; vertical format is more natural for torso and full-length shots

What I think I did right is

  • Focus: on the eyes
  • Flash: use indirect and diffused flash to even out skin tones
  • Overexpose slightly: dialled in +⅓ EV to help brighten up the skin tones a little
  • Aperture: wide open for most shallow depth of field

Generally I learned that this portrait lark isn’t as easy as it looks! Lots to think about that isn’t second nature yet. Onwards and upwards!