Portraits - Simple Is Good

I know that I dwell on this topic fairly often but I just cannot stop. I guess you will have to put up with it every couple of months or so. I adamantly believe that simple is not only good but actually essential when it comes to portraits. This is probably more or less true with all photographic endeavors but especially when it comes to portraits.

Sometimes I go completely off on how bad TTL flash and matrix metering and autofocus and unresponsive digital cameras and… I do this not because I am some sort of retro-jerk, hipster, or manly-man. I do this because it's a hard lesson to learn in things that matter. It's especially hard to learn now in the 21st century. I happened across this image that I shot in 2002 and thought it would be a reasonable example of a few things that you might want to consider in simplifying your photographic life.

In some ways digital imaging and the internet information onslaught has made a few things easier to learn. Unfortunately those things fall into two major categories. First - things that never been that hard to learn in the first place. Namely exposure, aperture, shutter speeds, etc. With instant feedback of digital and at least 200,052,105 people rehashing this constantly the time to learn the mechanics has gone from a little bit of time and effort of focused study to almost zero time and effort. Second - things that used to be hellaciously complicated and expensive are easily learned and cheap.

I have no issue with either of those two things that have gotten easier, cheaper, and faster. Actually that is good news. I don't bemoan that anyone can do tricks that only I could do in the 80's or 90's. Photographers that relied on some exclusive magic effect or the fact that normal people were to lazy to figure out exposure were probably not that good at it anyway. To bad you can't make a living with it anymore. No big deal.

The issue is the complexity and distractions that have been introduced. Far far too much time is spent by normal people and normal photographers dealing with, thinking about, testing, fooling around with, trying out, mastering, and being somewhat competent at every single thing that possibly can be done. Too many avenues. Too many mechanisms. Too many variables.

The stuff that actually matters is still maddeningly frustratingly difficult in a lot of circumstances. A lot of the noise and complexity takes away from focus on the subject and the moment. When it comes to people the moment is everything. You may be thinking of some sort of heavy duty action when I say this. Of course that is true but it's also true in every single image of any people that you might make. Even the one I included at the top. Even in the most static image you could possibly conceive. The expression, the micro expression, the subtle gesture all of it.

Capturing that can be extremely difficult and can not only drive you insane trying to do so but you also must be an active participant in a lot of cases in order to either subtlety or overtly provoke what you are looking for. Maybe even provoke something different that what you have right now from subtle to wildly different. When you combine that with composing the frame, and orchestrating the light this simple endeavor has endless variables to master.

I used to think point and shoots were bad because they were so so slow. They would not take the picture when I told them to. That got fixed. They still suck for me because of one fatal flaw for my purposes, my style, and my aesthetic. You may think that is sensor size, ISO noise, etc. Yea maybe but those things are way way down the list to the two things that are absolutely essential to what I need when I shoot people. I need to be looking at the person not looking at the screen on the back of the camera. The other thing is that I need to be able to see exactly what is happening at close to full magnification. In other words I need a great viewfinder. It's amazingly difficult to actually see detailed facial expressions looking at the back of a point and shoot.

Without going into more analytical detail I'll give you a summary of this particular image that may serve as some things to consider. I scanned this negative this morning for the first time and thought of the subjects that I mentioned when I glanced at the contact sheet that consisted of 12 images shot with a Hasselblad 205FCC and a Zeiss 150mm. That camera has an amazing viewfinder. You have to see it to believe it - If you are ever in the area I will be glad to have a beer with you and you can see for yourself on one of my other Hasselblad 6x6 cameras. I sold that one a long time ago.

The above portrait is of daughter #2. At the time she was eight years old. To this day she doesn't stay in the same place for more than 10 seconds. She absolutely refuses to take any kind of direction. If she does she will do it with vicious compliance. She is a born actress, has no fear, completely unselfconscious, and fiercely independent. Her thought processes were always unbelievably sophisticated for her age compared to her sisters or any other kid that I have known. Completely different than daughter #1.

Example - she insisted on styling her own hair and clothing since she was about three years old. That's why she is wearing a summer dress in the middle of a very cold February day. Her hair looked different every single day. That's why I scanned this image - for a project I am doing that outlines her personality. It's going to be focusing on the hair. I called them "Rachel specials". Here is a different day…

I wanted to capture some of that. Just a bit. With daughter number two that is a tough mountain to climb. Not my best work but I think I did a reasonable job. Screwing with focus points on the camera, analyzing histograms, worrying about matrix metering changing based on composition, or plain not being able to see her expression for the brief moment I provoked it in the games I would have to play with her would have completely blown this opportunity.

Trust me - I was there. I would have made an image for sure. Just not this one. In fact I probably would not have been satisfied with it but would have spent endless amounts of time trying to tart up an inferior portrait with all the crap I know how to do in post processing. I am not preaching to use film here. Nor am I preaching not to take full advantage of whatever means you have available to make the image you want to. By all means do so but in the onslaught of all the things you can possibly do just consider the basics of what is most important and some of the obvious things that seem to take a backseat.

Sometimes simple things are the most important. Sometimes limitations in possibilities can be more advantageous in making the image you want to make than endless technical options.

RB

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