People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Varying the pose – research

As suggested in the brief for the exercise ‘Varying the pose’, I’ve been looking at magazines to get a feel for the variations of pose that you can see in professional portraits. I quickly accumulated so many examples that I thought it was worth collating some here. This will help me with inspiration not just for this exercise but also for the forthcoming portrait assignment. It’s been something of an eye-opener: I hadn’t realised just how many variations there are on basic poses. I guess part of the skill of a portrait photographer (or a fashion photographer) is to breathe new life into what could be very simple client briefs.

Standing

The main variations here are around what to do with the hands. Most of these don’t use any props in hand so they have to go somewhere. Just letting them hang to the side looks very bland and static. Placing the hands in particular places can give real ‘body language’ signifiers: both hands on hips = defiant; hands in pockets = nonchalant; arms folded = defensive or impatient, etc. The other notable point of difference is the placement of the feet and related to this, the tilt of the hips. There’s a classic flattering pose of standing slightly side-on to the camera, hip first.

Sitting

The real variations here aren’t so much where to place the hands, although this is still a consideration, but what to do with the legs. Together, apart, crossed, raised, extended, tucked under. Again body language becomes evident to a degree, particularly how much the subject is leaning forwards (attentive, needy) versus backwards (relaxed, confident). Crossed legs is an interesting one, especially for men: it seems to try to look relaxed while still being quite defensive (literally).

Other

I actually found lots of examples of leaning – it seems to be a very fashionable pose at the moment. Leaning implies relaxed, and is easy to link with hands-in-pockets to solve the problem of what to do with hands. Walking is also reasonably common, effectively giving a slight variation on standing by incorporating the feeling of movement.

Lots of inspiration now!


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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: Focal length

Brief

Make exactly the same framing on a face with different focal lengths. With a zoom lens, use at least three: at either end of the zoom scale and in the middle. If you have more than one lens, use that, too. You will need to move the camera towards and away from your subject to keep the framing consistent.

Results

Subject: this is long-suffering wife and reluctant model Ann.

I’ve converted the focal lengths into 35 mm equivalent, as my camera works to a 1.5x crop factor. If you’re peeking at the EXIF data, yes I have rounded up a couple of the numbers for neatness.

24 mm Equivalent Focal Length:

Way too wide for a normal portrait, this has the distorted ‘back of a spoon’ look to the nose in particular. Quite unflattering!

24 mm EFL

24 mm EFL

35 mm EFL:

Better, less obviously distorted, but still not wholly natural. Still a little bit ‘looming towards you’.

35 mm EFL

35 mm EFL

50 mm EFL:

This is the first one that looks reasonably natural to my eyes. The proportions of the facial features are quite normal.

50 mm EFL

50 mm EFL

75 mm EFL:

Of the focal lengths I tried, this is the one that is meant to be closest to the optimal one for portraits. It does look natural and flattering, so the theory is sound in my experience thus far.

75 mm EFL

75 mm EFL

100 mm EFL:

To my eyes this looks equally fine – no obvious distortion, nothing that looks too odd.

100 mm EFL

100 mm EFL

150 mm EFL:

This is where slight visual oddities started creeping in. The face shape is starting to look marginally too wide to be a true likeness. The features are starting to look flattened out.

150 mm EFL

150 mm EFL

200 mm EFL:

The flattening effect is getting more noticeable. The facial features are starting to converge on the centre of the face and the space around them is getting disproportionately broad.

200 mm EFL

200 mm EFL

345 mm EFL:

The features are flattened out to an almost comical degree here. Compared to the more optimal ‘middle’ focal lengths, this squeezes the features further into the centre of the face, and the whole face shape looks like it’s been stretched out on a rack. Very unflattering! (sorry Ann)

345 mm EFL

345 mm EFL

What I’ve learned

A great technical exercise! It’s unlikely that anyone would knowingly take portraits at the two extreme ends of the scale here as they each in their own way distort the subject’s features in a very unflattering way. It is very enlightening however, to see the extremes as they help to illustrate exactly why there are accepted standards on the ‘best’ focal lengths for portraits. Interestingly, viewing each one with the adjacent versions either side it’s hard to spot the differences – but when you look at one from each extreme, they are very different indeed.

One point of note is that I found quite a few online sources ‘correcting’ the commonly-quoted belief that it’s the focal length that causes the distortion – technically it’s the distance not the focal length…  but if you’re framing the image in the same way, that requires to you compensate with your distance from the subject, which is what causes the distortion. I recall an exercise on Art of Photography that showed that an equivalently-framed crop from a wide shot would match a telephoto shot taken from the same distance.


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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.


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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: Thinking about location

Brief

Find six very different settings or backgrounds which could be used effectively and attractively for either a whole body or torso portrait. You will need to take into account the lens focal length and camera position, and the lighting. Many things can work together to make an attractive backdrop, so there is no simple formula, and ultimately your choice will be based on what you like. Take reference pictures of the locations as you come across them, without people. Finally, choose one of them and return with a portrait subject and photograph them.

Results

1. Train station:

My thinking here was that it’s a visually interesting spot, part of an old steam train station and kept in 1940s style, and that it’s relevant to the proposed subject (my wife Ann) as the town is where we’ve made our home in recent years, and we quite often walk through the station on a weekend. If this had been chosen, I envisaged a full-length shot sitting to one side of the ‘Pickering’ sign.

Station

Station

2. Disused shop front:

For a different look, and one that I have seen used in magazine photography, I thought this black and white deserted shop front would be good. I has quite a distinctive aesthetic feel to it, and in my mind I saw the subject leaning in the doorway looking nonchalant. The background has enough visual interest without being too busy. For this to work, the subject would need to be wearing light clothing in order to stand out against the black door.

Shop

Shop

3. Castle footpath:

Just up by Pickering Castle there is a broad footpath that splits off into two to circle the castle walls. Perspective forms a fat triangle (or actually more like a rhombus) which I could envisage framing a torso length portrait. My eye was first drawn to the scene by the shadow of the tree falling at the head of the path, almost forming the figure of a body (if you have a vivid imagination).

Castle

Castle

4. Bench with bush backdrop:

I spotted this bench in front of a colourful bush and though that it might make an attractive location for a seated portrait. The choice of clothing would almost certainly present a contrast with the yellow of the foliage.

Bench

Bench

5. Beach:

Although quite simple, with broad swathes of plain colour, the beach location appealed to me for two reasons: the light, very clear and bright (although this may not be the case if returning at another time with a subject) and the diverging lines formed by the waves and the sea, which could help to frame a torso portrait and lead the eye upwards to the face.

Beach

Beach

6. Barn door:

Something a bit more run-down and rustic. Like the shop front, this is one where I imagined the subject leaning against the door, probably in the space to the right without the middle horizontal bar. The risk here is that the subject is too small in the frame, and it becomes more a picture of a barn door that happens to have a person in it.

Barn

Barn

Selected location:

I felt that the frontrunners were probably the castle path, the barn door and the beach, as they gave the best framing options in my mind. In the end I went for the castle path. Part of this was around the suitability from a backdrop point of view – the path as framing device, the textures of the grass and the wall – and partly because it actually means something to the subject: the castle path is one of the regular places we go to walk the dog on a weekend.

When I returned with my wife, she was wearing a red coat that complemented the green of the grass really well. The framing device of the path shape lived up to its promise in my pre-visualisation. The tree shadow from my test shot wasn’t there as it was a totally different time of day, but I think that’s for the best as the shadow as an additional element may have been too distracting. The sky wasn’t anywhere near as blue and attractive as in the test shot so I went for a slightly tighter crop that majored on the path, grass and wall.

Ann Castle

Ann at the Castle

 

What I’ve learned

Most of the learning here was in the preparation – not just taking the six test shots but actually thinking properly about what would make a good location. I had a couple of false starts on this to be honest. My initial instinct with a background, especially in a portrait, is to make it as inconspicuous as possible, sometimes by framing but usually by shallow depth of field. The idea that the background should itself be attractive and interesting is quite novel to me. So my first attempts at finding locations were very plain, to the point of being bland. I initially included a couple of indoor locations, but ultimately rejected these as I realised I’d chosen them for their plainness, not their attractiveness. The lightbulb moment for me was a line in the Roswell Angier book ‘Train Your Gaze’ [1]:

“Photographers and viewers alike tend to pay less attention to what is in the background of a picture because they think it is less important than what is in the foreground. This is a mistake. You should always think of background and foreground as two equal parties to a visual conversation.”

This made me rethink, and I found another bunch of locations locally that I felt better fit the brief.

So now I’ve slightly rewired my photographic brain (I like exercises like this; where you actually feel like you’ll do things differently in future); I can now see that a background can be as much as part of the image as the foreground. The location chosen can contribute to the message or mood or intent of the image, it can give it context. In future I won’t be so quick blurring out the background and assuming it’s an extra in the scene, as sometimes it’s more like the co-star.

1. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Lausanne: AVA


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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.