What We Can Learn from Portraits

What We Learn From Making Portraits

Portraiture Can Enhance All of Our Photography

Want to increase your photography chops? Try portraiture.

When we are working with another person, and trying to make a great portrait of them, we have many challenges that confront the photographic process.

The one that is largest, and seems to be one of the more difficult challenges is time. With a landscape or food or still life, we can take as long as we need in most instances. But with a portrait, time is of the essence. A bored subject can look tired or uninterested in front of the camera.

Add to that the challenge that so many of us put on ourselves of entertaining our subjects while they wait and we work to fix this stand or that umbrella… the stress can add up to an unfulfilling session.

Learning to work within this time constraint can make us better all around photographers, and lessen the need for vast quantities of Tequila and Rum at the end of a long day.

The cover image above is by Frederic Reblewski. Using a strong light behind the subject, his goal was a moody portrait of a young man in conflict. The light and shadow show a classical scenario that plays out well in this dramatic portrait. Close cropping of the image and the use of negative space help the mood along as well.


In this image, photographer Diana Lundin had a very short window to keep the sun on her subject. Notice the angle of the shadow that indicates the sun is already low in the sky, and to maintain the even light on the subject she had to work quickly. Using the graphical element of the lifeguard tower set the subject off, and provided another element of interest in the image,


With a large scrim and a speedlight, photographer Marjorie Decker was able to position her subject and create a flattering light quickly. This kept the subject more relaxed while Decker was able to finesse the pose. Large, soft light sources can be much more forgiving than small, direct ones.

Portrait photography helps you work on your composition as well. Having a subject that can move allows you to play with placement of the background elements. Trying several compositions quickly is much easier – just have your subject move a little to the left or right to see what happens,


Photographer Iryna Ishchenko moved her model into and out of the frame to find the point where the subject worked best in relationship to the background. Keeping the flow of the lines of the body, while making the subject nearly anonymous gives the portrait a sense of mystery and elegance.


This dramatic portrait was lit with only a window light. Photographer Linda Luu Kiefl positioned her subject to give extra dark space around him. This helps the feeling of isolation that is enhanced by the gentleman’s somber expression. Including a small part of the window shade in the photograph helps give it context and adds a bit of whimsy to the image.


Working with negative space on a plain background can be very challenging. Working the subject into and out of the light can help a photographer see composition happening right before their eyes. Working with the subject and space can be quite illuminating. Heh. Photographer Annely Silferwax worked with her subject looking off camera for added drama.

Portraits can encompass a wide variety of emotion. Photographers can use compositional elements to enhance feelings of isolation, elation, distress, sadness and joy.

Add to this the elegance of light, and the portrait photographer can work through all the challenges of photography in this one genre.

Texture, dimension, shape, color, and gesture are all within the purview of the portrait. Using light wisely and with intention helps set the mood for the portrait.


Adding texture and whimsy to the portrait, photographer Richard McDonald kept the light strong behind the subject and flattened it on the front side to present this portrait. Photographer and subject simply began playing with this interesting piece of cloth until something striking happened before the lens. The graphical element of the image is enhanced by the anonymous subject.


With the light fading fast, photographer Leonardo Ferri moved his subject between two pillars in the courtyqrd they were shooting in and pushed his ISO to capture the delicate ambient light from outside. The subjects haunting expression fit the mood of the light, and the soft texture of the background give the image a striking appeal. It has a timeless, tranquil quality.

These images are pulled from the student work from the 8 Week Portrait Workshop. The inspiration for this assignment was the work of Herb Ritts, an incredible photographer who left us far too young.

2015: A Postmortem and Retrospective.

2015: A Postmortem and Retrospective.

We humans love to think in terms of beginnings and ends, and where, in reality, January 1 carries no more significance than any other day, we see it as a beginning of a new year full of promise.

And that is fine with me. 2015 was a difficult year for me, and I am damned glad it is over. I want to look forward to new opportunities.

First the good stuff from 2015:

My family is well and healthy, and I am going to be a grandfather. One of my daughters who was a bit estranged is now back ‘in the fold’ and we are all having such a good time together.

Project 52 started out with a bang in August, and the level of artistry in this year’s group is absolutely awesome – and you all know I do not use that word lightly. Project 52 is the glue to my existence these days. Thanks to everyone who is taking part.

My friends are all doing well, although a good bud of mine in Texas is having a rough year. We are all thinking about you, Charles. I know you can kick ass on that thing.

I made a decision to ride a motorcycle from Phoenix to Fairbanks, Alaska and have begun to get ready for that ride starting August 1, 2016. When I made the pronouncement I didn’t even own a motorcycle. I do now. And I am loving taking solo rides through the southwest.

The motorcycle is a luxury, I know… but I needed something to get me excited again. It seems to be doing the job.

Now the other stuff:

2015 was the worst creative year I have had in decades. I feel like my mojo done mojo’d off somewhere. I took fewer photographs than I ever have in a year. I was interested in some aspects of my creative life, but other parts just seemed to be sluggish at best.

Why?

You mean, what’s my excuse? I don’t have no friggin’ excuse. Excuses suck. Even more than my creative year of 2015 sucked.

My leg bothers me more than expected 2 years after the incident, but that is always going to be there and while it is annoying as hell, it is not an excuse to fall behind creatively. And I have worked through other challenges worse than a stupid leg cramp.

I fired three clients this past year. More than in a decade previous. Just got tired of the lame bullshit of diminished productivity. If you ain’t ready to commit, I am not interested in rowing your sinking boat. But that is just the way it is.

I pondered (picture me pondering… awesome…) over the last few weeks and have come to the conclusion that while I am pushing others to be their best, I may have slacked off on my own sorry ass. Not that I don’t work to be the best I can be, I just have not taken the effort out of the box to give it a shot.

Am I creatively afraid? I honestly cannot answer that.

I have rarely been afraid in the decades I have been making stuff, but I do feel like something in my core has fractured a bit. Not fallen apart yet, but fractured enough that it needs attention, Lots of attention.

Being creative has always been how I have defined myself, my work, my output. I may not be the most brilliant creative on the planet, but I do pretty well in the trenches. I love the trenches. I love getting into the process and the production, the grimy grit of where it gets made.

I love makers. I have always been a maker.

At least, I was until last year… and while I made some stuff, my output was lower than acceptable to me. It seemed like every time I started something I knew I had to do, it would get messy, and confused… and I would begin to pull away from it, not wanting to continue. A book is left half finished, another in nearly final form but sitting on a drive and without much love from me.

Maybe this is what they call a “Grand Funk”… or a “Creative Block”?

Who the hell cares what they call it, I want out. Desperately want out.

My action plan:

I have been working pretty hard this month to get ready for this ad-hoc ‘beginning’ of 2016. And I have been making stuff, getting it done. Shipping out is next, and that means I have had to shift some priorities. Slide a little here, shave a bit off there. Axe that crap right off the table… shifting.

My goal is to make something every day. 

Produce something every week.

To ship something every month.

Less FB, more camera/pen/stylus in hand. More time outside. More time working this fucking leg to either get it strong enough or kill the SOB.

If the last few weeks are any indication, I should be able to meet those goals.

Lighting Essentials is a big part of the plan. A new look coming next week, articles and tutorials that will put my creativity to the test. I hope you stick around to see what LE will become.

I know this is not your typical “GoodGollyGee, I am so awesome and have been doing better than I ever expected” end of year post, but it is heartfelt.

And I know I am not the only one in a funk, a darker place, a trench in the front yard of Mr. Happy’s summer fucking home.

If you are going through something similar, may I suggest you DO something, and ship it. Get it done.

Small successes can lead to a tiny bit bigger than small success. Hey, it takes time.

I will keep you posted occasionally on what my funk level is, and perhaps we can help each other.

Until then, I will leave you with something that has helped me get going. A heavy metal band, Disturbed, recently covered a 70’s piece by Simon and Garfunkle, “Sound of Silence”. To say they made it their own is an understatement. I have watched it a gazillion times – not only for the wonderful musicality but for the incredible visuals of master photographer Matt Mahurin… a lifelong creative and someone I am influenced by. Enjoy.

THE “REAL LIFE” MYTH

THE "REAL LIFE" MYTH

IT'S ALL A LOAD OF CRAP MEANT TO DISTRACT YOU FROM YOUR GOALS

Truer words never spoken:

“And lastly, never, never ever give-up. You must believe in you when, no one else does. You must hang-on to your dreams when there is no reason to even hope for the smallest of miracles. If you give yourself a backdoor, chances are you may fold and take it. Life can be full of regrets and ‘what ifs’. Don’t let your priceless dreams be relegated to the dust bin of ‘if only’. If only I had tried harder maybe, just maybe I would have built a professional career as a highly respected fine artist, and my work would become family heirlooms and highly prized someday … ”
— Dave Iles – fine artist (HOW I PAINTED MY WAY TO THE MIDDLE – PART II – Find Part One HERE)

I am such a believer in this. Too many times I hear and read about someone with great promise who throws in the towel because “real life” got in the way.

Real life is always going to get in the way. Every friggin’ day real life is in the way. The path to becoming an artist, a creator, a someone with something to say is a freeway, it is a path without markers much of the time. It is a messy, craggy, dangerous route not for the faint of heart. “Real life” has a clearly marked, signage heavy, overly used tarmac. Lots of “take this turn and buy a house… BECAUSE!” And “get a corporate job with bennies… BECAUSE!” And never forget the “max out the credit cards for Christmas… BECAUSE!”.

Because why? Because that’s the way real life works? Or because everyone else does it?

Real life? Real life pulls us from our dreams and gives us back squat, bupkiss, nada-dam-ting…. Sure you got kids, sure you got a mortgage, sure you gotta have insurance and a new toaster and make sure that you drive a better car than your neighbor and never miss a night on the couch watching sitcoms and reality shows… The myths and lies we hear and tell ourselves over and over begin to replace what is really real with – you got it – “Real Life”.

A marketer’s dream. An ad guy’s heaven. Real life where we can sell you a college degree for $100,000 (loaned with interest) but we cannot support your dream of being a photographer for $5k worth of airline tickets and a suitcase. We can encourage you to spend 40% of your income on a pile of bricks with a lawn to mow, but we will never encourage you to take some time to write that novel, or compose that symphony, or photograph that mountain… no… home ownership (albatross) is ‘real life’ buddy and you better STFU about any other way of living if you know what’s good for you.

But as you get older, you realize that much of that ‘real life’ that you used for a super cool, bigdaddy excuse was bullshit. Bull. Shit. A steaming pile of fertilizer they laid down in your life and YOU LET THEM. In some cases encouraged them. Pure crap handed to you wrapped in colorful paper and tied off with a bow with a card reading “welcome to real life”… sucker.

And taking that wrapping off was fun. Real life became a bench mark of nothing, and a valuable companion for doing nothing. Because “real life” had you by the balls and you simply were too concerned about who was watching to punch real life in the face, take his watch and wallet, kick him while he’s down and make an escape in your almost paid off car that with interest cost you about $70,000.

You were looking for an excuse to not do it. A grand excuse for not putting it out there and maybe having to face rejection. The fkn TV never rejects you when you plant your ass in front of it to see what is happening on “Storage Wars”… or the lameass news.

But the beauty of all of this is we have a choice to make every single moment of every single day. Until we don’t. And on that day it really will matter little what ‘real life’ did to you, or took from you, or robbed you of… that bullshit doesn’t work anymore on that day.

On that day the sum of your choices has been weighed – and measured, and you will never get a chance to choose something different for the next moment. You used all those opportunities up already. I hope you chose wisely.

So what are you going to do today to advance your art? What choices will you struggle with today? Which ones will win out?

Your art or your personal nemesis, both real and imagined, “real life’…?

(I hate mirrors…)

(H/T to David Wolanski for the heads up.)

Shooting a CD Cover: Front and Back (Project 52)

Shooting a CD Cover: Front and Back (Project 52)

This past week we have been reviewing the CD cover assignment for the Project 52 2015 group. The assignment was for a cover and back image for a String Quartet performing Samuel Barber’s String Quartet Op 11.

The assignment specifically noted that the string quartet members may not be available for the shoot, so a creative solution must be found. (I don’t give assignments that are impossible… and finding a string quartet to photograph may not be totally impossible, but damn close for many of us.)

When shooting a CD cover there are three main ways of approaching the image.

For pop music it is usually going to be a photograph of the artist. Rare are the covers that do not have the artist shown. The cult of personality, and celebrity demands that we keep the faces of the performers in the fore. In many cases, the celebrity is more important than the music anyway. See the covers below for Faith Hill.

faithhill

Another way is to show something that is reminiscent of the music, or an image that may be part of the title. Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” cover could certainly have the pines of Rome featured:

respighi

And the third way is use art that is quite striking, but may not relate to the music but in the most obtuse of ways. This is usually done when there is no necessary correlation between the recorded music and a celebrity, or an album that is more about the music or genre of music than the actual performers.

windhamhill

Some labels like Windham Hill above was a full adopter of that approach to album design, and helped create the style as we know it today. Another company that also used art, although in many cases commissioned art, for their classical work was Nonesuch. Both of these legacies live in today’s music cover designs.

nonesuch

The CD cover is becoming less of a major label concern as streaming has taken its toll, but cover art will be around for a while longer and is very important for Indie bands and artists.

Here are a few of my favorites from the Assignment. Remember the cover is on the right side, back panel on left.

Continue on after the jump to see the class images.

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