Let me start off by saying in the past I have thought portraiture was one of the easiest forms of photography, alongside landscapes. Yes, that’s either damn brave or stupid to say such a thing. But when you start off in the world of photography you know so little and can make stupidly profound statements. Obviously, after a couple of years, I’ve realised there is no such thing as easy photography, just lazy photographers. However, I don’t want to dwell on statements such as those, it’s all about learning so let’s look at this pursuit of portraiture.
You see my idea and interests in photography change, sometimes seasonally, other times through interests or meeting with other photographers. Portraiture was something I just used to do as my mates were doing it and really producing great images. I’m always in favour of learning and bettering myself, so would go along with nothing but a camera usually. Even though I’m still very proud of my early work, it’s not the same as what I can do now, because of one huge change – experience.
In the beginning, the ideas usually came from my friends and as I’ve said, they would set up their equipment for us. So although there was an element of creativity, it only helped me in one area – directing. Standing in front of an attractive person (usually female by nature) was embarrassing and awkward initially. I’m not ignorant and know I’m a balding middle-aged man, so there is some stigma attached to people like myself. However, I knew if people spoke and asked about me, we would have no issue. I’ve been a very sociable person for a long time so can work by myself or in groups, it’s never been a problem for me.
It’s not just talking to a person since most of the sessions were group-based you didn’t have long so I would spend more time talking to my mates (the photographers). In a way, this was good as it eased me into portraiture. You would work with some amazing people, who were quite often as inexperienced as you! There did seem to be a large element of the photography directing, telling a model how to pose, which way to move and sometimes with outfits. I was too clueless at the start and just did what I could and imitated others a fair bit.
But gradually it started to click and I would ask if we could do a theme or use a type of lighting (obviously still getting help with these elements). Looking back asking for help here and there helped me concentrate on the image and composition, whilst gradually understanding different lights. However, at this point it seemed to be an occasional inspiration like the shot below
It’s an easy word to say, but not easily obtained, for some of us it can take time. For some people, it’s the technology that gets in the way, I can see that with friends. I can see them not understanding what their settings and buttons do. My problem has been commanding in front of people and setting up equipment or a theme. The only way past this is through experience, so I’ve kept joining in these sessions every few months. During 2019 my friend Jay Clarke started using an old church near me (x-church), which was large enough to hold 15 different sets/photographers easily. Each time would be a different theme and some of these we raised money for charity too.
Because the church was just an open space, it made you think about using elements from within the church. There were some very friendly people turning up and arranged frequently enough that we all got to befriend each other. We have become like a small family and what a bunch of talented people too. So many are from the ordinary world and some have prior experience so it’s an interesting mix that really worked well. Models would often have ideas and we created groups on Facebook to chat before the event. The atmosphere was so good a few of us even had our children present and joined in at times!
What was important was the quality of images delivered to models, the great attitude and work rate of models too (one event was 24 hours).
Okay, so where am I going with this? Well by this time I had learned a great skill to start your world of flash photography – low key. I started playing with this technique and could easily do this due to the low light inside the church. Jay Brown is one of the quality models I worked with and he couldn’t believe I could make an image with a bag and a flash, in 1 exposure.
Because there were gaps between these x-church events and few other opportunities, this allowed me time to away and come up with future ideas. Finally, I had come up with my own theme for the next shoot and chatted to a few people about getting involved. For the very first time, I had a plan, like a story I wanted to tell with pictures! As I’ve said before you have to be very fluid with your planning, as people drop out and situations change (especially as we are unpaid).
My idea was based around a corpse bride, a couple would be married off, then a vampire would steal the lady away for himself. The people selected were all amazing people and up for the challenge. Having never shot multiple people in a frame before this was a fair challenge and friends like Shaun Johnson suggested I use his lights. Shaun offered to help on set too, so he was holding lights in certain frames, whilst I directed and shot. For instance, I wanted to convey a scene of darkness, so I shot this set (introducing the vampire above) and asked Marius the vampire to stand in the background. We then used a Speedlight from the floor and uplight his face, which made a long cast of a shadow above him. This worked superbly to convey the darkness and mystery of a vampire.
The enchantment of the bride was another favourite, I wanted to keep this reminiscent of a beautiful curvaceous lady being overwhelmed by the vampire. I cannot fault the posing of Marius and Hattie, they acted so well and nailed the look.
Even now I believe its the best piece of work I’ve achieved with portraiture, in respect of conveying a story. What you take from these sessions is the ability to practice, learn and have a lot of fun. I can’t tell you how much fun we had in between the pictures, involving dancing and music. We even had people join in the fun, as seen on this behind the scenes shot.
Thanks to fantastic sessions at the x-church we kept going during the year and themes continued. By now a few of the photographers had started asking questions about lighting and I helped them on their set. This allowed me to settle in my teaching mode, where I love to assist and show stuff I’ve learnt. For me, being able to teach another person is important and it’s been an ethos for years. I’ve taught children computing with cups, maths and even taught an 11-year-old how to use binary using desk lamps!
Anyway, going off-topic there, sorry. So my confidence started to grow and I really wanted to test what I could achieve with the little equipment I owned. I shot many more low key shots, some colour, some mono and tried different diffusers. For one of these shoot’s, I had the idea of solely using silhouettes but wasn’t sure how to achieve it. I don’t own any background or stands, but Jay Clarke set up a few spare posts and bars where possible with sheets and similar for people like myself. After deciding on a pure white sheet I placed my 2 speedlights behind the sheet on full power and let it rip. On this occasion, we had a lovely young lady called Mia who was a dancer. She was fabulous, everyone wanted to work with her and she danced, she posed and got involved in all sorts of powder and paint too.
It was great to be doing my own thing so she posed for me and although I couldn’t fill the frame with light, the shot worked well. It’s a very simple idea and easy to set up, its just a huge backlight in theory as I didn’t want anything in the background. This shot went down so well, Mia’s mother left me lovely feedback and has requested me to attend more shoots.
It’s always good to try this on a few people and see what happens, as I say don’t get too stuck in your way with a fixed idea. For some people that is fine, providing you have the gear, equipment and money to achieve this. My photography is more about the constraints and using what I have in front of me. Using the backlit method I also shot the lovely Tink, someone who had a fantastic spirit and energy. She posed in a tight outfit with an army sort of vibe and this worked well too, again it was something very different to everyone else. Sure my imagery was not clean or perfected as others, but that’s something you can improve on.
You have to discuss editing at some stage and you might notice this is barely mentioned in my blog or articles. It’s previously been the part I have detested in the past, due to my ability. Although I have a basic setup I’m limited in other ways too. Most of my editing is done at night with my screen dimmed (I only own a laptop) and work with it on my knee. Not only that but I use Linux as my operating system (it’s an alternative to Windows & Mac), so this means less capable software and far fewer training resources. I’m not making excuses, it’s a choice I make for reasons (not relevant here) so won’t dwell on that.
However, during 2019 I wanted to try different things with my editing – bearing in mind this was only using a lightroom equivalent and not image manipulation (photoshop etc). Some people have this creative or artistic side and can plan an image from idea to end, but that’s not me.
For the next few images shown, I played with contrasts and detail in the edit until an idea came to me – comic book style! Why not make these images more comic book style, since it was something I had seen so much (don’t ask how many I collected earlier in my life). So I played with a few pictures that were overexposed and kept going till I liked it. After creating a couple of these I thought it would be fun to make an entire comic book page of this, but alas, time, skill and energy fell away!
Sometimes the best option is simplicity, because of one reason or another. In one case we had this lady who was just getting back into modelling and didn’t have much time available on this occasion. Bryony had something some people will never have – style. She knew exactly what worked for her, colour and styles without really trying (well it seemed that way). So I posed her against a few corners and walls and was blown away. Simple poses and gestures worked so well, the shots looked amazing. I cannot tell you how simple the setup was – one light on an umbrella, no backgrounds. For this session it was clear what I wanted to do with editing too, either black & white or de-saturate the colour.
Throughout these sessions and this article, I’ve talked about the simple nature of my equipment. So most of these were either an umbrella on a stand or a large umbrella that converts to a softbox – think they are called an octabox. In my opinion, they are great for learning as you can use it as a parabolic umbrella or a softbox. It’s a great way to learn control of your lights and understand the effect of the inverse square law. Using this equipment each time kept it consistent and allowed me to understand how the light fell on to the set and how much spilt.
We also worked with gels too, just to add colour in certain parts of the frame. I used my experience from prior sessions to think about what colours suited the scene and how to shoot with them. Working with another new model – Alyce during the Halloween shoot, it just seemed to make sense to try it.
Lighting is such an important part of your work and essential to learn. In dark environments like the church, you simply can’t shoot without additional lights, there isn’t enough contrast in the scene so you end up with a flat image. At the Christmas shoot, I played with inverse square law and kept moving the umbrella 1ft forward at a time to see how much softer the image became. My favourites were with this umbrella very close like below and shot wide open at f1.8.
During late 2019 I wanted to improve the separation between the model and the background, so introduced a rim light. I was so impressed with this technique as it made the edges of the model simply pop with colour. It felt amazing to learn this and improve my work, which really helped my confidence. Because this shoot was Christmas based this worked particularly well with Emily (see below) and her red outfit just popped. Because of this work and the repertoire I was building with models, we arranged further shoots too (like this one ).
These sessions have instilled confidence in myself as the photographer but also joy in the models face too. They come back to you, share your work on social media and want to meet up again. This is no lie either, just look at these reviews from models:
Looking back at your work is often fraught with horror because as a photographer you are your own worse critic. Of course, every shot could be improved, but my mindset is different, I’m happy with what I achieve. Each time there was something different about the model or the end product which kept me interested. Like I say I struggle to continually do this, it’s not a natural process.
Seeing my confidence grow has been great and reflected by my podcast work too (over 75 shows now). This attitude of just keep working away and evolving will pay off and it’s not about money. I do this to keep my mind active, to learn skills and meet people.
This experience of shooting has now provided me with the confidence to shoot more film too, so I’m slowly introducing this again to my portraiture. You’ve seen examples of work at night, so let’s see what 2020 will bring in the studio or at the x-church.
I cannot thank Jay Clarke enough for arranging all these shoots at the x-church, it took some doing that’s for sure. We have to thank Kev who looks after the kitchen in the church too, for keeping us warm with drinks and hot snacks.
As you can see from the work many lessons have been learned:
- low key lighting
- inverse square law effects
- silhouette shooting
- working with constraints
- directing + assisting
- shooting film
Until the next time, let’s see what 2020 brings and my pursuit of portraiture, as I’m nervous about finding new ideas and concepts now! Details of all the models are linked below and hope you check out their work.
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Hattie Burr – https://www.instagram.com/life_of_vanessa_k_/
Jay Brown – https://www.instagram.com/jbvsm73/