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Thread: Portraits - capturing the essence

  1. #1

    Portraits - capturing the essence

    Hi

    I posted the following at the end of Colin Southern's school of portraiture thread, but got only one response, as the thread had effectively ended a while back.

    I am new to this forum and have only just discovered Colin's great portraiture course. I have read through all the lessons and learned so much; it's amazing how Colin and others are willing to give up so much time to help beginners in portraiture like me.

    I have been a keen amateur for many years, but have only in the last few months gravitated towards portraits. I might have posted some of my efforts in the school of portraiture thread for criticism, but I have been taking what I am told are "environmental" portraits (as a professional environmental scientist, I find this terminology a bit odd, but there you are), whereas Colin made it clear at the start that he was not concentrating on this subgroup.

    Which leaves me with a question for Colin and other experienced portrait photographers, and for anyone else with a view. How do you capture the character and personality of the subject in a "pure" portrait that contains so little context, and that is often highly polished and corrected in PP? In asking this question I do not mean to imply that you cannot show the essence of a person in a studio portrait, or head/three-quarter shot, but I would like advice on how to do it. The expression can show basics, such as a friendly personality, or the mood at that instant, but does it/can it show more? Of course, it's often easier to judge personality from a photo if viewers knows the subject, but how do you get it across to strangers?

    One reason I went for "environmental" portraiture was that I felt it would be easier to show personality. I also have the opportunity to photograph all the members of a choir I sing with, and want to differentiate them by personality and interests. It's a work in progress that you can see here:
    http://www.paulashleyphotography.co....ion/the-choir/
    (but tell me if you'd rather see photos posted directly here, and I'll work out how to do it )

    Wlou posted a helpful response me here ("School of Portraiture" - Lesson 08 - Taking it to the next level ("The Reunion")), to which I have replied below.

    1. I live in the real Cambridge (ie UK), but I guess that's a subject for discussion in another forum!
    2. What I understand by an environmental portrait is a posed image of a person in the context of where they work, their hobbies, interests and activities. So it is generally not a studio shot, though I guess it could be. Colin Southern's course covered images that almost eliminated anything other than a head or head and shoulders, plus a fairly anonymous background. The emphasis was on the perfection of the shot, including quite a lot of retouching, but very little on capturing the personality. Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against that style of portraiture, but it is not what I am trying to do.
    3. Wlou suggested the idea of making a collage of facets of a subjects personality, and referred to Picasso, who did this in a single image. I think this is a really interesting idea to try. I find the reference to a painter interesting as well, as I try to spend time looking at painted portraits for pose, structure and lighting ideas - I'm lucky to be within range of the London National Portrait Gallery.

    My apologies for the unintended length of this post.
    All advice welcome (and criticism of my work)!

    Paul

  2. #2

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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Hi Paul,

    May I suggest you upload the image in the thread. We are lazy people and do not like going to links to view images. If you do not know how, read the instructions at the beginning of the thread.

    Welcome to CiC, you should have a great time in this forum.

  3. #3

    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    After a few false starts, I've just worked out how to post images.
    These are examples of the kind of portrait I'm trying to take, and which I understand are called environmental portraits - but I'm happy to be corrected.
    By way of background, there are around 40 members of the choir, and eventually I aim to have one portrait of each member, though my website shows, at this early stage, two of each. Each portrait is captioned by profession and singing role.

    Portraits - capturing the essence
    The Music Director
    Leica M9 Summilux 35mm f/1.4 FLE

    Portraits - capturing the essence
    Technician and Tenor
    Leica M9 Summilux 35mm f/1.4 FLE

  4. #4

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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Hi Paul,

    With “environmental portraiture” I would like to see the subject in an appropriate environment. A guy with a cricket bat belongs on a cricket pitch. If you can capture him in action in a cricket match – so much better.

    A man working with a cordless drill/screwdriver should not be wearing a dress shirt, an overall will be much more appropriate. Capturing a working man busy doing something in his workshop would be much more of an “environmental portrait”.

    This is no expert opinion, just my opinion.

  5. #5

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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Hello Paul, I found this defenition that can be helpfull I hope.
    "Environmental portrait:
    they give context to the subject you’re photographing
    they give points of interest to shots (something you need to watch as you don’t want to distract from your subject too much)
    they help your subject relax
    they often give the viewer of your shots real insight into the personality and lifestyle of your subject
    These shots sit somewhere between the purposely posed shots of a studio portrait (they are posed and they are unmistakably ‘portraits’) and candid shots which capture people almost incidentally as they go through their daily life."
    Read more: http://digital-photography-school.co...#ixzz2MxKKiK59

    Your two photos are a good start to what you wanted to accomplish. First you have the people, and you have the props, and you have the environment. I am not sure the first guy looks relax?
    You certainely take more then one picture of your subjects, are there some where your they are actually in real situations with the activities you wanted to show? You have a real opportunity here, willing subjects to pose for you. The possibilities are limiteless. Moove with the camera, change angles, allow you subjects to moove around. A good start.

  6. #6

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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Trying to capture TWO personalities in ONE image is going to be difficult. even more so if you want a certain degree of consistency throughout the group you are shooting. I wish you all the best in that endeavour, should be very interesting to see how well it all works out.
    I quite like the first image, a pianist who also has a passion for cricket. Nice juxtaposition. Unless the bookcase to the camera left is showing a different side to him (i.e. NOT music or cricket), then I would get rid of it as I find it is too busy and chaotic. The lines and relative simplicity of the piano and the cricket attire would then stand out with less distraction.
    The second image. I would agree that wearing a dress shirt in a workshop is a little unusual - but I do know people who do so (often they get enthused with an idea and forget what they are wearing). However, it is TOO common. Put him into a full tuxedo (bow tie, tophat, perhaps a cane - depends on how the choir dress for performances). Alternately, have a music stand, pages of music. Make the difference between the two personalities as large as possible. We viewers don't have the luxury of insider knowledge, so a subtle difference goes WAY over our heads.

    The other, and probably simpler way, to go is a couple of images of each persona separately. You could them present as a diptych.

    Graham

  7. #7

    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Thanks to everyone for the helpful comments. A few responses:

    - Andre, I guess you're strictly correct, but I'm not actually trying to take photos of people in their professional environment. Rightly or wrongly (and whatever the correct terminology), I have set out to show the subject in a way that reflects an activity they enjoy doing and that, often enough, other members of the choir will recognise as characteristic of them. As it happens, the lab technician is a keen DIY handyman, as shown by the photo. It is not showing him as a technician (he's actually in his garage). But your comments suggest plenty of scope for confusion, and perhaps I should clarify my objectives and how I present the results.

    - Louise: getting the subjects relaxed is one of my aims, and any advice would be welcome. As it happens, the music director is an intense and strong personality, part of what makes him good at his job - and doesn't relax easily. And yes, I do take plenty of photos in different arrangements, though I have only put two of each person on my website. Thanks for the reference, which I will investigate.

    - Graham: thanks, very helpful advice. For avoidance of doubt, I don't intend to show two individuals in one image; I'm just interested in the idea of showing two facets of one person in one image, a la Picasso. But I need to get basics right first! I like the idea of a diptych or triptych, though; it would make you think about combining compositions across two or more images.

    Paul

  8. #8

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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Quote Originally Posted by LocalHero1953 View Post
    - Graham: thanks, very helpful advice. For avoidance of doubt, I don't intend to show two individuals in one image; I'm just interested in the idea of showing two facets of one person in one image, a la Picasso. But I need to get basics right first! I like the idea of a diptych or triptych, though; it would make you think about combining compositions across two or more images.

    Paul
    Hi Paul,
    I mentioned two personalities as in personas, not two individuals (or the same individual twice). Merely a single person expressing multiple personalities.
    Although with software, it's so very easy to have the SAME individual in multiple positions (and therefore attire) within the same image. For example, a cricketer playing at bat to one side of the room, while playing the piano on the other side of the room. You can even have them interacting if you are careful about the posing and positioning.
    Graham

  9. #9

    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Thanks - A good idea to explore.
    Paul

  10. #10
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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Can I say that I especially like the first image. It looks just like batsman waiting his turn at the crease (and so definitely NOT relaxed) but transported from the pavilion to his music setting. It works for me ! (And apologies for any unfamiliar cricketing terminology!)

  11. #11
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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Excellent Paul It is a great way to do portraits and does take work !! Agree with Dave on the first one, seconds does work for me !!

  12. #12

    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Thanks for your kind comments, Dave and Alfred.

    I've been thinking for some time about whether to get the subject to smile or not.
    A smiling subject looks relaxed, but on the other hand you often get what the person puts on for show, which can hide the inner character. I admit I'm trying both and have discussed it with some of the subjects - some of them are naturally "smiley" people, but on the other hand I think you see something interesting about them when they're not smiling. The best smiling portraits, of course, are those where the smile has occurred naturally, and has not been turned on for the camera.
    Any other views?

  13. #13
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    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    Hi Paul,
    I just found your thread. I like environmental portraits rather more than the formal head and shoulders shot. I like your first picture of the music director. You have given us clues to both sides of his personality or at least his pastimes.
    I think you need to give a clue to the second fellow's singing, or did I miss it?
    Have a look at this fellows work. He is a Crown Prosecutor in NSW and made a photo-series of judges, lawyers and other officials in the legal system...

    http://www.marktedeschi.com/gallery/court-in-the-act

    As for smiling, I think it is a matter of choice of the subject, though asking them not to smile often gets a more relaxed image.

    Oh by the way "environment" has a much broader meaning than the natural environment or the biosphere.

    Graham

  14. #14

    Re: Portraits - capturing the essence

    You're right, Graham, my aim was to have a musical clue in each portrait, but failed in this one. My other portrait of the same guy showed him playing the guitar, though. Thanks for the link.
    You're right about the meaning of environmental - it's just my own background that makes me see it in the green sense.

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