Thursday, December 15, 2016

I'm Baaack! Thoughts on Portraits

Mark Kurtz - Photographer

After a full year of not posting, I am back at it. Why did I stop? I just tired of posting and then inertia set in. I posted photos to Facebook in the interim <> but that isn't a good forum for lengthy posts IMO. On my personal page I have a lot of friends who are not interested in photography and my Jim Bullard Photography page is more a gallery and marketing venue. Why am I back? I've been playing with some portraits lately and I decided I wanted to talk about portraits at a length that I think is more suited to the blog.

Portraits have always been part of what I do, but a minor part after I left the army. In the army, we shot a lot of portraits from the ID photos for ID cards (shot in a photo booth machine minus the curtain and coin slot) to chain-of-command photos from which we printed hundreds of 8x10s to be hung in every building on post. The lighting for all these was simple and uniform, two flood lamps placed high (above the head) and equidistant from the subject at 30-40 degrees on each side and two more at or slightly below the head directly below the higher lights. In other words, FLAT LIGHT!

Hey, the military has never been known for creativity. This was in fact, the same lighting we used for copy work and well, everything we shot in the studio. Basically, the lights rarely moved. Occasionally they were pushed closer to the backdrop when we were doing copy work but otherwise it was two lights high and two lights low, all equal in intensity.

I have been looking at portraits lately, both mine and others and wonder if the sort of photo we made of commanding officers can fairly be called "portraits' or whether in fact, they are really just large ID photos. I'm going to get myself in some hot water here and suggest that a lot of "portraits" shot in commercial chain studios are pretty much in that same category. Yes, they have a bit more imaginative lighting that reveals the contours of the face better, but they are basically formula portraits. It doesn't matter who is in front of the lens, this is how they do it. It is photographing bodies rather than people.

To me, a portrait is more (or should be) than just a "photo of" the sitter. It should reveal something of the person beyond 'he/she looks like this'. I tried to do that with the portrait above of Mark Kurtz, a fellow photographer in Saranac Lake, NY <> during an open studio event when I stopped by to see him. We had talked for 15-20 minutes about current affairs before I asked to shoot his photo and it was done with available light and handheld. The light was more harsh than it appears. I had to open up the shadows considerably in Lightroom.

For those interested in technical information, it was shot with a Canon EOS M3 and the 18-55mm Lens at 55mm and f/8, with auto ISO (6400). With the APS-C sensor, 55mm is an 88mm equivalent (to 35mm full frame) which is a good focal length for head shots. The perspective at that length neither flattens the face too much nor distorts features like a shorter lens would. The subject appears much as he/she would at normal conversational distance.

Mark didn't automatically smile and commented after, so I shot another with a smile (below) but when I am shooting portraits I never ask the subject to smile. I prefer to spend some time talking (as we had) to put the person at ease with me and the process and photograph their 'natural' expression. Some people smile often and easily, others not so much (me for example). If, when I am making the photos I feel that the subject needs to 'loosen up' I may ask them to think about think about someone or something that makes them happy. The last thing I would consider is asking them to "say cheese". That IMO is a guarantee of a 'cheesy' portrait. Maybe that is where the expression "cheesy" comes from?

Mark Smiling

My preference is for the unsmiling image of Mark. From the limited time I have spent with him, I think of him as a fairly serious guy. OTOH the current events we had been talking about were enough to make anyone serious. I haven't asked Mark which one he likes better. I did ask permission to use the photos here and he agreed so I don't think he dislikes them. The ones I sent him though were in color. For this series of posts, I am converting the portraits to B&W. Did I capture him? Is it a true portrait rather than a glorified ID photo? I am not unhappy with it. With more time and as I get to know Mark better perhaps I can improve on it. More on 'why B&W' and the connection between photographer and subject in future posts.

As always the photos are copyrighted. Mark is free to use them as he wishes but anyone else needs to get permission from both of us for specific usage. Aside from copyright, it is just the polite thing to do.

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