This fall I signed up for an eight-week photography course through betterphoto.com. My motivation was to do a little more structured learning on the subject, since I’ve always been a good student – working well with deadlines and enjoying the classroom environment. The only difference now is the classroom is virtual – lessons, assignments and critiques are all done asynchronously through email and the Better Photo website. The course I’m taking is on digital wedding photography, which may seem pretty specific, but really the skills used during an event like that carry over to many different situations. While I’ve only started the class, I’ve been enjoying it all pretty well and look forward to what I’ll be learning this term.
For the first assignment, Instructor Paul F. Gero had us take a “simple and beautiful” portrait of a friend or family member. The parameters included:
- Using my favorite portrait lens
- Using the tools I feel most comfortable with (e.g. shooting with available light vs. flash)
- Working within my comfort zone
- Taking 10-20 minutes for the session
First off, a slight confession. I have always loved portrait photography, but at the same time have been somewhat intimidated by it. As an inherently shy person directing people and having to set them at ease does not come naturally to me. So there’s always been this sort of push-pull effect whenever I take a portrait, feeling incredibly hopeful about producing something pleasing or that properly captures someone, but so nervous if I don’t. While I feel this to an extent with anything I do, I’ve always been more sensitive about it when it comes to a portrait, perhaps because I see a lot of its success hinging on the subject’s own satisfaction with the image. In essence, I’m not happy unless they are happy.
So when I received the first assignment I was both excited and nervous. I asked my friend Kathy to be my subject and she kind of surprised me with how quickly she agreed to it. As it turned out, she was thinking of using a photograph on her business cards, but I imagine it also had to do with my bribing her with paraphernalia from our favorite TV show, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
On the day of the shoot, we met at a local brew pub, took a little time to catch up, and then headed towards a nearby park. The sun was starting to set, which gave us some nice even light in spots, though I was a little anxious about the location since it was in an unfamiliar part of town for me and we didn’t have a lot of time to spend looking around. Fortunately after about a 10 minute walk I noticed an interesting spot that turned out to be a townhouse complex. The environments I thought were promising were a high retaining wall at the edge of the parking lot and a bench by the complex’s community center. I had already predetermined which lens, aperture and ISO I would be shooting with (a 50mm lens at f/1.8 at ISO 400), so I just pulled out my camera and started shooting. As Mr. Gero advised us to do, I spent enough time to lock in the exposure and then focused on interacting with my subject.
In the experience I’ve had taking portraits, there’s always been a slow build up of both inspiration and comfort for both subject and photographer. Working within the 10-20 minute time frame limits that progression, but it is often a scenario photographers find themselves in, so they have to make the most of it. Kathy was noticeably uncomfortable at first, which in turn made me uncomfortable since I didn’t really know how to put her at ease. But I kept shooting, putting her in a few different locations and trying a few different angles. Generally I tried to shoot at eye level or higher, but the steeper angles became slightly problematic because of the style of glasses she was wearing. The top of the frame intersected with the upper part of her eye, a detail I didn’t really notice until I was in the editing phase. I’m quite happy with the image otherwise, and am somewhat inclined to overlook the issue given the strength of the other elements. Either way, it is definitely one thing I will keep in mind in the future – how the style of eyeglasses can limit the acceptable angles I can shoot from.
After what we felt was 10 minutes (and it was uncannily close based on the file EXIF data – 10m04s!), it felt like we’d hit a natural break point and started walking back to our cars. Along the way a grassy hill with a wide swath cut through it caught my attention and I thought it would make for an interesting backdrop. Since I felt like I was working “after school” or in a time just for myself, I decided to switch to my favorite lens, an 85mm prime. Although I like a lot of the elements in the images from that location – the lighting, the color, and the composition – the detail that doesn’t quite work for me is Kathy’s hands being in her back pockets. It was her natural inclination, and I encouraged her to do it, but the angle isn’t quite right to pull it off. A more aggressive crop of the image eliminates the problem, but it also limits the size of the enlargement should one ever be made. So the second take-away involves the subject’s hands. In this particular situation, giving her something to hold like a blade of straw might have worked better, or simply varying the hand position until something worked.
After officially ending the session, I asked her how the experience was for her and she described how she felt awkward most of the time and how that might have been more so because we’re friends. I suspect it had to do with a change in our usual dynamic, and not enough time to settle into it. She couldn’t think of anything I could have done differently, since she didn’t feel she would have responded well to my being overly engaging or directive. This was somewhat intentional on my part, having read an article recently about letting subjects naturally settle into a position with only minimal direction. It’s a philosophy that ultimately suits my personality as well as what I perceive thus far as my style.
Although Mr. Gero asked us not do anything with the photos until the next day, my paranoia about losing data prompted me to at least get the images copied to my computer. Of course, once that step is taken, it’s hard to resist making selections, which then leads to edits. I did take some time to decompress though, doing a bit of mindless window shopping before actually going home.
Overall I’m pleased with the results of the session, having one or two images I think flatter Kathy and capture her personality, as well as a couple of things to be mindful of next time. Of course I didn’t feel like there was quite enough time to get into a comfortable rhythm, but have offered to do a more extended session with her if she’s ever interested.