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Assignment Four

Taking a good photograph using an external flash can sometimes feel like starting to learn photography all over again, so it’s no surprise that many photographers feel intimidated by it (myself included). While using an external flash is straightforward – slide the thing on the camera, power it up and shoot – the results of the most basic use are usually disappointing, especially on people. It’s been compared to shining a flashlight directly in someone’s face, with all the unappealing qualities that that direct, harsh and unflattering quality of light brings. There are times when direct flash is fine, but generally speaking if the light can be redirected to a large surface, the resulting diffusion is more pleasing to the eye.

Assignment Four was another project involving a specific series of tasks – photograph someone using an external flash in various configurations: direct, bounced off the ceiling, bounced off a back wall and bounced off the floor. In my often-task-oriented brain I zeroed in on the tasks themselves with little thought about the aesthetics. So it took several attempts (and a patient dad) before I completed the assignment with photographs that were more than just test shots.

Direct Flash
Although not a “bad” photo, the light is a bit harsh and unforgiving.

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Ceiling Bounce
If I’m using flash, this is how I usually have the head aimed, so I feel fairly comfortable with it. Though bouncing the light off the ceiling spreads the light out, illumination is also from the top down, which can create undesirable shadows under the eyes. The typical remedy for this is to use a little white card attached to the flash head to throw some of the light forward. Doing this usually provides a bit of a catch light in the subject’s eyes, but can also throw a noticeable shadow behind the person if he’s standing close to a wall.

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Back Wall Bounce
This configuration was new to me, and now I’m not sure why I never tried it before. It probably can’t be used as often as the ceiling bounce, but is preferable given a choice between the two. With the flash aimed backward, the back wall becomes a giant front light source on the subject, which doesn’t create problems with under eye shadows.

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Side Wall Bounce
Bouncing light to the side wasn’t on the list of things to try, but it also has an appealing result. With light being more directional, it gives the sense the table lamp is contributing to much of the overall illumination.

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Floor Bounce
This one was definitely new to me and something I’ve never thought of doing. The sample shows the effect, but obviously it’s inappropriate for the subject. My instructor had a good suggestion about making the flash a supplemental light source, turning it into a bottom fill light or reflector. That is something I definitely want to try.

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My biggest take away from the assignment is that I need to be more adventurous with where to bounce the light. Side wall and back wall bounces produced the most appealing results in this session, two configurations I never used before.

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Assignment One-B

The other half of Assignment One had the following parameters:

  • Use available light
  • Use a “normal” lens (in my case a 35mm, since I’m using a crop sensor camera)
  • Take 10-20 minutes for the session

I admit the purpose of the assignment was not entirely clear to me at first, but it has turned out to be a good lesson about lens selection.

The day before I had the session with Kathy, my co-worker Don asked if I could take a head shot for him. I told him that, serendipitously, I needed a subject for this assignment and that we could easily combine the two. I chose to shoot after work, knowing that the light would be more flattering and predictable. We also decided to do it on our employer’s property, which has a some small patches of green, but is generally more functional than decorative. However I figured shooting there would be valuable experience, as more than likely I would have to photograph someone there again. Knowing the usable areas of the property will ultimately save me time and worry.

When I started photographing Don I felt something was off right away. It had nothing to do with Don, who was a cooperative and enthusiastic subject. It had to do with the combining of my assignment parameters and the request for a head shot. For the latter I would normally use the lens I used with Kathy – a 50mm, which puts some distance between myself and the subject, but not so much that it becomes difficult to provide direction. Using the 35mm and filling the frame with head and shoulders often put me uncomfortably close to Don, but it also resulted in slightly unflattering perspective distortion. The proximity lends the image a certain intimacy though, which could be valuable in some cases.

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During the session I was also mindful of the light, as it was more overcast that day. Certain positions provided better catch lights in the eyes, which I didn’t notice as much as under eye shadowing. Ultimately I didn’t stay long at the second location, which I went to mainly to get more distance between Don and his background.

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In the third location, which had some nice grass for a background, I took a few frames, but ultimately concluded the “normal” focal length wasn’t working out. Switching to the 50mm (and thereby ending the course assignment), I took several frames I knew would better suit Don’s head shot request.

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Even though I wasn’t happy with the previous shots, it made for a good learning experience and I was prepared to turn in what I had. But with still a few days to go I figured it would be worth giving it another go, setting my sights on looser framing of my subject.

For “take two” I recruited another co-worker, Steve, and photographed him during our afternoon break. I had done a little scouting during my morning break and had a couple locations already in mind. Right away I noticed there would be (another) issue involving glasses, this time reflections. But I did my best to minimize them without giving up on the locations I had selected. With a busy highway on one side and some unattractive building “stuff” on the other, I wasn’t left with too many options.

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Keeping a comfortable distance from Steve meant a slightly looser framing, although a somewhat aggressive crop basically shows what a longer focal length would have provided.

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Ultimately I chose to do as little cropping as possible to uphold the spirit of the assignment.

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If there’s one detail I would change (other than total elimination of eyeglass reflections), it’s the positioning of his far arm. Although visible, I think it could stand to have a little more showing (there’s the other issue of his shirt needing ironing, but I can only do so much).

Overall this more defined assignment has been a good one, providing a good lesson on lens selection and listening to my instincts.

Many thanks to Don and Steve for being my cooperative and patient subjects!

See the full set of photos from the sessions.

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Assignment One-A

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.”

Buffy Panel to Panel

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

See the full set of images from the session.

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