Tuesday, 22 February 2011

PnP: Ex 7: Focal length and character

The stated aim of this exercise is to examine the effect of changing focal length on the character of a portrait.

It is fairly standard photographic knowledge that the use of a wide angle lens is not recommended for portraiture because of the distortion – a medium telephoto of around 80-135mm (35mm equivalent) is usually recommended as a compromise between a pleasing image and being close enough to achieve some rapport with the subject.

The set-up was Naomi again – in one of the garden locations identified in exercise 2. The weather was cloudy, so lighting was well diffused, and the location meant that for all except the very wide angle shots I was able to exclude the featureless sky. I kept a constant aperture (f/4) and used three lenses to vary the focal length from 200mm (400mm equivalent FoV) to 7mm (14mm equivalent FoV). As far as possible I kept the subject roughly the same size in the image.

From left to right these were taken at approx. 200mm, 150mm and 100mm (400/300/200 in 35mm equivalents)

Naomi at 200mm  Naomi at 147mm  Naomi at 101mm

To all intents and purposes these shots are the same – they have a very pleasing rendition of perspective, the subject is reasonably isolated from the background and their is little to choose between them. From the photographers operational viewpoint the last shot felt more engaging because I was considerably closer to the subject so it was more of a joint activity.

This takes us firmly into medium telephoto territory – the next two shots are at 50mm and 27mm (100/54 in 35mm equivalent) to show the transition from medium telephoto to standard/wide angle territory. 50mm on the left.

Naomi at 50mm   Naomi at 27mm

The 50mm(100) is still perfectly acceptable but the 27mm (54) is beginning to show some distortion of facial features. For example the near eye seems somewhat larger and the curve of the nose is exaggerated. It is just acceptable at a push – but the situation could be rescued in one of two ways.

If the photo was not to be used large I could have pulled back to produce a smaller image and then cropped it. Or I could perhaps have chosen a different pose – a profile shot would have less obvious distortion. Both these tips were taken from Tom Ang’s Digital Photographers Handbook.

The next two shots are largely for novelty value. Unsurprisingly they are not effective as portraits but my daughter was good enough to let me show them anyhow. The left hand is 10mm (20mm – 35 equivalent) and the right is 7mm (14mm). I have seen these extreme wide angles used in fashion and club photography in some magazines I have read, but it is fair to say that portraiture is not their natural territory.

Naomi at 10mm  Naomi at 7mm


As expected telephotos produce a more pleasing rendition in portrait photos, but for operational purposes medium telephotos are probably more effective because they allow closer interaction with the subject.

Monday, 21 February 2011

PnP Exercise 5: Eye contact and expression

In this link, one of the ways suggested to take ‘stunning’ portraits is to play with eye contact. Eye contact has significance in many cultures – in some eastern cultures direct eye contact with a perceived superior is seen as an aggressive act. In the UK it is rather more context sensitive – it can be seen as particularly intimate, something expected between individuals who trust each other or directly confrontational.

The opposite is also true – in western culture and some eastern cultures averted gaze is seen as a sign of modesty, concealment or simply disinterest – in western business circles avoiding the gaze could even be considered shifty and untrustworthy.

The aim of this exercise is – as far as I can tell – really about exploring these dichotomies. Clearly this can only be achieved in the context of western culture – given that is my background.

I chose my youngest daughter as the subject – largely because she is comfortable in front of the camera, but also because we know each other sufficiently well that there is little need to work on the rapport while using the camera.

First up is a full-on eye into the camera shot – one in glasses and one without

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a                    Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

In the ‘glasses’ shot Naomi is comfortable in front of the camera, and (happily) comfortable with me. There is clear trust between the subject and photographer, and in truth no evidence of aggression or confrontation (again happily). There is an interesting contrast with the other shot where she has removed her glasses. In this example she looks considerably less comfortable and sure.

Looking from the sides of the eye has different impacts depending on the head position and whether or not there is eye contact

Naomi: PnP Ex 7b         Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

For example in the leftmost shot Naomi looks distracted – there is almost a sense of a candid shot to it, whereas in the right hand shot it is clear the subject knows she is being photographed – perhaps even enjoying the attention.

The sense of a candid photo is emphasised even more when the face as well as the eyes are moving away from the camera.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

Eye movement in the vertical direction has other meanings. First off a full face with the eyes raised skywards and no eye contact tends to suggest exasperation – perhaps a little exaggerated in this example.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

On the other hand, dropping the head but keeping the eyes raised leaves an entirely different impression – one of shyness, perhaps sharing a confidence.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7b          Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

In the right hand shot, the effect is emphasised by the extra tilt to the head and the sideways glance. A raised head gives an entirely different impression.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7a

As a final combination I tried a lowered head and no eye contact. This emphasises the impression of shyness, and instead of a confidence shared we are left with a feeling of a secret concealed, lost in thought in or isolation. In some cultures this could be interpreted as a very submissive pose while in others it could be seen as worthy of sympathy – I tend to the latter.

Naomi: PnP Ex 7b

Interestingly this was my daughters favourite from the set.

A particularly famous example of this kind of pose is Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ The lowering of the head is less pronounced than my examples but the pose and lack of eye contact demand nothing but sympathy. By contrast Walker Evan’s shot of Allie Mae Burroughs is to my mind much less engaging because of the confident, full on pose and gaze. It is suggested in Angier’s book that this is in part due to Evan’s choice of a long telephoto to take the photo – but I am inclined to think that a different pose would have engendered more sympathy irrespective of the lens used.


To my mind there is clear evidence from this exercise that it is possible to manipulate a viewer into a particular reaction by careful choice of pose, because of the power of eye contact in human culture coupled with the cultural significance of head position.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Baltic Gateshead – Dan Holdsworth, George Shaw and Jesper Just

Went to the Baltic today to see Dan Holdsworth’s  ‘Blackout’ (last opportunity before it closes). The exhibition feature seven very large (probably 8ftx6ft) prints of a mountainous area of Iceland. Holdsworth’s technique appears to be to print negatives of his pictures so the sky is jet black. In some cases this works really well -  in others things come about a bit wishy-washy.  Some seem almost like a computer generated image through the glaciers – others, for me at least miss the mark. I’ve been to Iceland – and I understand what he was talking about in the guide in terms of the timelessness of the landscape - this is not how I’d choose to capture it, but we’re not the same. I’m certainly glad I made the effort to see them. reproduced at the size they are they are almost monumental – so hat’s off to the guy.

By way of fascinating (and unexpected) contrast on the floor above was an exhibition by George Shaw - The Sly and Unseen Day . This, more than anything I have read, has convinced me that for my first Level 2/5 course I shall try Landscape. It doesn’t have to be long exposure shots of water. In the exhibition Shaw revisits the social housing estates of his youth and paints them with Humbrol enamel paints – the kind you use for model kits. They are, quite simply, delightful. Our second house, while not ‘social housing’ was in a near identical estate, and I suspect the collection of terraces, semis, back alleys and neglected community centres and shops that Shaw presents will be familiar to a significant proportion of people in Britain today.

The icing on the cake (almost literally as it was the top floor) was a series of three videos by Jesper Just – Sirens in Chrome, A Vicious Undertow and Bliss and Heaven. The three videos – about 10 minutes each – adopt Hollywood/music video production values – but leave you with a whole range of questions. it’s a shame that Sirens in Chrome is not available online, as for me it was probably the most intriguing, although Undertow was almost equally engaging as in asks questions about the relationship between an older and younger woman (mother and daughter perhaps) and a young man who appears to have the younger woman’s affections.

Sadly it’s too late if you want to see Holdsworth (at the Baltic anyhow) but Just and Shaw are there until mid-May, and in my view worth the visit.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

August Sander (Getty Museum)

A collection of 87 prints by August Sander held in the J Paul Getty. It’s going to take a while to go through all of them as they each have a contextual paragraph or two.

August Sander (Getty Museum)

Monday, 14 February 2011

PnP1: Ex4: An active portrait

It isn’t really clear to me if this exercise requires some evidence of what the subject is doing, or whether the activity is simply an excuse to relax the subject by involving them in something other than looking at a photographer.

In the first instance I’ve taken the second position and produced a series of portraits of my wife while she was playing the piano and singing with our youngest daughter.

It was a somewhat challenging exercise because the piano sits against a wall so it is difficult to get a head on shot, and to complicate matters further the lighting in the room is very subdued forcing me to use bounced flash as I have relatively limited lighting kit.

Given these difficulties I’m quite pleased with the selection of shots I produced. The one on the left is Marion in full voice, while on the right she is talking to our daughter. The wall decor is a bit distracting, but the expressions seem more natural than earlier shots of Marion for Exercise 1.

P2134040.jpg             P2134048.jpg 

The second two shots provide more context Whether the left-hand shot is a true portrait is perhaps a moot point.

P2134042.jpg       P2134049.jpg


It is certainly the case that the expressions on Marion’s face were more natural while she was concentrating, although I did feel that the lack of eye contact was a downside of this. The location and activity also made it difficult to provide genuine context in a single picture.

If I get the opportunity I will try some extra shots at the piano in the local church, as it stands with space all around, which should make it easier to get a full face shot and perhaps some eye contact.

…and just for good measure

…a couple from my archive. The first is our youngest working on her homework – the colour temperature was a challenge because of the mixed lighting and the pose looks a little uncomfortable (even though it was natural) – however I think the elements work together to show here concentration:

Naomi doing her homework

And finally a shot to show how little contextual evidence you really need to place a shot – this one is one of my son’s friends singing in their band at an outdoor concert – the expression and the microphone make it fairly clear what was happening – and it should be no surprise that Jamie was the vocalist at the time.

Jamie at Silloth Carnival

Friday, 11 February 2011

PnP1: Ex 3: Thinking about lighting (ii) - some more ideas

The first part featured indoor lighting so though I’d step outside for this second part using the sand dune location I found in Exercise 2.

First off direct sunlight:

Self portrait - low sun and skylight

This was taken with low morning sun which provides very hard shadows, and has caused me to squint a little. There may well be craggy, character-filled faces that work well in this light – particularly in monochrome – but I don’t think I’m one of them.

Next I moved into relatively deep shade behind one of the dunes, so that I was only lit by light from the blue sky. After correcting the colour balance this was the result:

Self portrait - skylight only

The lighting is much softer and the hard shadows are gone. However the overall effect is a bit flat, with the bright background being a bit too dominant. This leads to the third shot, which is the same as above, but with some fill flash from the on-camera flash. Colour balance was tricky here – if I took more of the red from the face the grass in the shadow began to look a bit unhealthy.

Self portrait - skylight and fill flash

There is also a bit of a problem from flash reflected in my glasses, but overall I think this is the most pleasing of the three shots.

One final outdoor shot – this one was intended as a bit of fun and has already been referenced in the previous part of this exercise – it’s a mix of moon and torchlight with a long exposure and some light trails for good measure. Am tempted to call this ‘Portrait of the Photographer as a Ghostless Head’.


And to finish a couple more examples of different lighting conditions that can be used for effective portraits depending on the effect required.

Naomi with the Alfa   Al fresco lunch at Fuerteventura Zoo   Stephen at the Beer Festival

The first was taken in totally flat, overcast lighting in the shade of the house, which helped manage the blacks, and saturated the colour of my daughters hair to good effect. the second is taken under dappled shade in an outdoor cafe in Fuerteventura – the lighting adds to the feeling of relaxation and overall ‘summeriness’. The final shot is one of my son’s friends in action with their band at the local beer festival – the mixed colours of the lighting add to the overall concert effect – which would have been ruined by the use of flash.

Location Scouting for Photo & Video, Part1: Virtual Scouting | Chase Jarvis Blog

An interesting couple of items – relevant to exercise 2. The Chase Jarvis blog is a mine of useful ideas, tips and inspiration.

Location Scouting for Photo & Video, Part1: Virtual Scouting | Chase Jarvis Blog

Location Scouting for Photo & Video: Part 2 – Predicting The Weather

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

Had seen some pictures from this year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in the BJP. I had been particularly struck by the first prize – David Chancellor’s ‘Huntress with Buck’ and several other shots that I found online – including ‘Tic-Tac and Tootsie’ (Jeffrey Stockbridge) and ‘Wafa’ so I jumped at the chance to see the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery while I was in London at the weekend.
I found the choice of ‘Wafa’ (Felix Carpio)as the eye-catcher for the exhibition somewhat odd. For me it is undoubtedly one of the stand-out shots of the show. Yet, it is rather at odds with most of the material on display, being a conventional, if very beautiful, portrait where many of its companions had a more contemporary feel. Perhaps that it why it was used – the cynic in me feels that some of the other shots would be unlikely to attract visitors in the way that this particular image probably can.
I was surprised by how little space was given over to the exhibition, which made for a somewhat cramped viewing experience – if you stood back from an image to see it at a reasonable viewing distance, often as not some helpful soul would assume you were making space for them and stand in front of you. Set against that – where else could you see a collection of this quality for just £2 – which was effectively refunded if you bought the catalogue (by way of a price reduction).
‘Huntress with Buck’ looked as good on the wall as I had hoped, but ‘My British Wife’ – second (Panayiotis Lamprou)– looked like its inclusion was intended to shock but failed.
The catalogue talks of the confrontational pose of the two sisters in ‘Tic-tac and Tootsie’, but all I could see was resignation and defeat.
I don’t intend to comment on all the shots, particularly as I can’t link to them individually– and to be honest some left me wondering why they were included, but other shots of note included ‘Yasna’ (Hadas Mualem) – a picture which seemed to capture isolation and loneliness –and by way of contrast the utterly charming ‘Tagar, 30, with his three daughters: Asa, Diti, Prya.’ by Kurt Hoerbst.
In the catalogue ‘Wafa’ is paired with a similarly conventional portrait of a young girl ‘Allegra’ by Russ McClintock. If ever there was a case of ‘the eyes have it’ it must be this pairing.
Steve Bloom’s study of Parkinson’s Disease – ‘Tim Andrew’s in his Bedroom’ was particularly moving - with the movement blur of the shot (I assume a slow exposure) a speaking clearly to some of the symptoms of the disease.
One final recommendation and then I’ll stop. For originality, Unsafe Journey (Amy Johansson) – a shot looking down on a woman riding on the link between two rail carriages – is hard to beat.
I wont go on. If you can’t get to the exhibition the catalogue is worth the £15 in my opinion – it even has a thought provoking introduction - ‘What Makes a Good Portrait?’ – which contains a quote which has gone straight in to my top ten favourites: “If a picture has for everybody exactly the same meaning, it is a platitude and it is meaningless as a work of art.” (Philippe Halsman).
The exhibition finishes in London on 20 February but the shots will be on display again at The Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens from 16 April until 26 June 2011.