Saturday, 27 November 2010

Project 6: The best of a sequence

The requirement here is to shoot a portrait session in which the setting and framing are consistent and the only variables are therefore the subject’s expression, gesture and pose.  Having shot the session, the idea is to make a judgement, prior to any actual review of the images, as to which is/are likely to come out best; and then to go through a process of elimination/selection from 20+ images down to the best single shot.
I wrote in a notebook immediately afterwards that it was ‘hard to judge which will be best’, but that it would probably be ‘those done early on, with a gentle smile’, but also that ‘there were a few quick snatch shots that might surprise’.  Interestingly, as will emerge below, I have ended up selecting the very first image that I took as the best, but it emerged from a shortlist of six in which most of the others have a casual, natural, ‘snatched shot’ look about them.
Ignoring a few shots where my subject, Isobel again, was caught blinking (or seeming to fall asleep with sheer tiredness and boredom – we had to shoot this around 09.30pm on a workday), I had 36 potential portraits from which to begin the selection process.  They appear below.
Most are taken with the camera on a tripod and with me positioned left or right of it, using a cable shutter release.  The lighting is from an off-camera flash, which is facing away from the subject, and being ‘bounced’ off a white ‘Portaflash’ reflector/diffuser positioned above and behind the camera, directed down towards the subject.  Working indoors in the evening (because I am doing these projects in late November), I had to use some form of artificial light, but wanted to avoid the usual harshness of flash.  Bouncing from the ceiling would have been one option, but the ceiling is low, meaning that the flash still casts sharp shadows behind the subject, which I wanted avoid.  Having previously experimented with various options, I’m pleased with the softness of the light on her face, and also feel that the slight soft shadow on the wall behind her face works effectively in providing at least a little bit of contrast with her pale skin.
I did my selections in Lightroom, using the ‘star’ system.  A couple of quick passes  eliminated those that were unacceptable on the basis of expression, reducing the number to 22.  Two more passes, homing in on those that appealed most in presenting Isobel in as natural a manner as I could, with obvious ‘engagement’ in her eyes/face and signs that might encourage ‘engagement’ from the viewer, resulted in the following shortlist of six.  Comparing this with the initial contact sheets above soon indicates that four are, indeed, from the first batch of images; and it is also clear that 2 or 3 show an expression that has arisen spontaneously from conversation and eye contact/interaction with me.  As in the earlier project with Tim, I am coming to the conclusion that, certainly at this stage in my learning process, I get the best results when I engage my subject in conversation/banter, whilst carefully looking for expressions that give the best opportunity for a good portrait.  Or perhaps I am learning (particularly in the context of this project) that the portraits I most like to make are those where the subject looks most relaxed, natural and engaged.
That said, I have also been looking at portraits made by other photographers, of course, and have already made reference elsewhere to the full-face, soft-lit, somewhat deadpan contemporary portrait style.  As the original contact sheets show, I was trying to get to something in that style, though the shortlist of six doesn’t reflect it.  However, my selection of the best from the whole sequence does take me back towards that direction.  It is the first of the six, and as mentioned above, the first shot that I took in the whole sequence! I have come up with this one for the following reasons.
·         The simple framing and composition is exactly what I wanted to achieve in this sequence.
·         Isobel’s expression engages the camera and the viewer, and there is a sense of warmth in her eyes and smile.
·         Yet at the same time, there is just enough ambiguity to generate further interest if the viewer looks at it closely.
Thank you for your help, Isobel, especially at the end of a long day, I’m pleased with the eventual outcome.

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