Friday, 1 April 2011

Photographing a family party–some reflections in the light of the course material

Was invited to my niece’s 18th birthday party last weekend, and as usual had a great time photographing the celebrations – the output is here on Facebook for anyone who’s signed up. I had hoped to get lots of material for future exercises, but it was not to be. That said, there are a few observations it’s worth recording here.
The party was in a small club/bar so lighting was very low, making flash essential. As the place had a low ceiling I chose to bounce the flash straight up. There is a small diffuser built into the flash that pulls out and flips over the light  (it’s intended to help diffuse the light for wide angle shots). If it is not fully extended it protrudes from the top of the flash and helpfully reflects a bit of light forward. This works pretty well, but give the size of the room I was also able, in some areas, to fire the flash backwards over my head, so the subject was lit by reflection from the wall rather than the ceiling. The three different lighting effects can be seen in these photos:
In the shot above the bounced light from the ceiling has given a broad overall light, while the protruding diffuser has reflected some light forward to fill the shadows. Careful inspection of the highlights in my sister-in-laws eyes show both the pool of light on the ceiling and the highlight from the diffuser.
For reasons which elude me I didn’t use the diffuser/bounce in this shot, simply a vertical bounce from the ceiling which has resulted in deep shadows which take the edge off an otherwise pleasing shot. The following result, with flash bounced from the walls is much more pleasing, although it could perhaps be faulted for being a little flat
Eye contact
It was a party so people were expecting to be photographed – and even though most of the guests didn’t know me, it was clear that I was with the family. As a result getting eye contact with people was no problem – and given the amount going on it was also easy to get shots without. The two shots of my niece below clearly have very different feels to them, in spite of the fact that they were taken no more than a few seconds apart.
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Expression and gesture
Similarly expression and hand gesture can change the meaning of a very similar overall pose in a matter of moments.
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This pair in particular lend some weight to my growing feeling that you can tell essentially nothing about someone from a portrait beyond a rough estimate of age, health and possible social status (based on clothing and jewellery). My wife’s mood did not change significantly between these shots – albeit they were taken 15 minutes apart – and they provide no meaningful insight into her character – I just happened to luck out with the expressions. This is why I struggle with photographs such as Richard Avedon’s The Family which seem to be regarded as providing special insight into the rich and powerful. As far as I can see Avedon’s technique meant he could choose to take a photo that illustrated his particular agenda, and that any chance of objectivity is missing, so the photos probably say more about his agenda than they do the individuals.
I’ll finish on a slightly different tack with a couple of shots of one of my nephews.
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What is happening in the first shot? At first sight it looks like kung fu – the concentrating stare, the odd arm positions, but further investigation shows the arm of the young lady he was dancing with and some loud speakers, so a dance is a more likely outcome – actually it was the Macarena. The second shot is much more intense, and this is emphasised by the way the hand frames one of the eyes. Without the context it is much more difficult to work out what is happening, and I think it is a very effective portrait despite the fact that his hand obscures much of his face.
In summary
Most of the issues raised in this first module were encountered during the evening – even the impact of focal length (I just didn’t keep the odd distortions). Even in near spontaneous photography situations it pays to keep an eye on lighting, and given the vast number of opportunities my advice would be ‘keep pressing the shutter’. Tucked away among the standard shots there will be some really good ones.

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