Project 1: Portrait, scale and setting

Project 1

This project concerns both composition and the weight of attention placed on the subject’s face.  The brief was to find a suitable setting and then make a number of images of:

  •  tight framings on the face in which at least part of the outline of the head is cropped by the frame
  • head and shoulders views
  • torso views, taking into account the arms and hands
  • full length portrait.
The most successful four images are below with comments beneath each image.

A. Face, cropped in close

P1-A: Face, cropped in close. 85mm, ISO 100, 1/100 @ f2.8

The viewer’s attention is firstly drawn to the left eye, for several reasons; people’s eyes always grab attention and this instance the positioning, sharpness and brightness of the eye add to its impact.  The shallow depth of field means that the right eye is softened and this adds some sense of depth to the image.  The viewer may ‘oscillate’ between the sharp and unsharp eyes before moving downwards to the white highlight area of the teeth.  The background plays no part in this image, nor really does the surface of the skin – the face is reduced to its key features, eyes, mouth, nose and eyebrows.  From this crop and this camera angle, the viewer gets a great deal of information about certain of the subject’s features but very little about matters such as the shape of the head or its relative thinness or fatness.  Would they even recognise the person if they walked past them?

B. Head and shoulders

P1-B: head and shoulders. 85mm, ISO 100, 1/125 @ f2.8, fill flash with -2 stops exposure compensation applied

This scale, provides a greater sense of the ‘person’ portrayed.  The viewer’s attention is now drawn to the face as a whole, rather than simply the elements within it, and the viewer now has a clear idea of the person’s age, size and clothing.  The background continues to play a minor role, particular in this instance, where it is both relatively uniform and it has been thrown completely out of focus by the choice of aperture.  Within the facial area, the eyes remain the most important area although in this example they face competition from the whiteness of the smile – highlights always attract the viewer’s attention.  The fact that words are used in this image will also be noticed by the viewer as will the vertical trail of contrasting buttons down the right hand shoulder.  Finally, have studied the portrait for a few moments, details such as the colour and texture of the hair and the multi-coloured earring will also begin to register.

C. Torso, taking into account arms and hands

P1-C: Torso, arms and hands. 85mm, ISO 100, 1/125 @ f2.8, fill flash with -2 stops exposure compensation applied.

At this scale, body language starts to make an impact upon the viewer’s reading of the photograph.  In this image there is a jauntiness about the hand on the hip, a confidence in the gaze towards the camera and a certain precision in the way the hand rests on the thigh.  The viewer is obtaining a stronger statement of who this person is, (or who they choose to be), in the way that they present themselves.  The face remains the most important feature but its relative importance is diminished and it must now compete with other elements.  In this example, the hands, relatively bright against the black rain coat and the dark denim, are much more important.  The large bright highlight of the t-shirt, especially as it has words and coloured hoops, is a major draw on the viewer’s attention.  The background here begins to assume a role – but it remains relatively minor.  The viewer could describe the background and understands what it is – in this case, it doesn’t have any greater significance than that.

D. Full figure

P1-D: Full Figure. 85mm, ISO 100, 1/125 @ f2.8, fill flash with -2 stops exposure compensation applied.

With this framing, it is the figure that dominates rather than the face.  The face remains the most important element but it is a part of a whole rather than the key element in its own right.  Posture, body language and clothing now begin to play a major part in the viewer’s understanding of the  image.  The direct gaze of the subject still commands attention but the crossed ankles also catch the eye and set the viewer’s mind thinking about what this posture says about the attitude of the subject.  Within the gaze the eyes are now small details and their colour has become less obvious and significant.  Taking a broader view, the colour and details of clothing now play a more subordinate part, they can be picked out, even the now tiny earrings, but they are merely a part of the whole figure.  Even the words on the t-shirt are slightly diminished in force.  The background too has become much more apparent to the viewer even at a wide aperture.  There is now a greater sense of context and the viewer will easily understand that this is a park or garden.

What have I learned?

Several aspects of this project surprised me.  For example, I found the more distant framing much more difficult than the cropped face and head and shoulders.  I think that this perhaps reflects my natural preference when photographing people – and this of course means that I have had much more practice at those shorter ranges.  For the longer shots, the model also needs far more guidance as to what I am looking for.  Such images are a team effort and of course, if the model begins to lack confidence in the photographer’s directions, then this will be transmitted in the final image.  Certain details within this direction seem to be very important, what angle should the body and head be to the camera, what should be done with the feet and legs and how should the hands be positioned? You will see that I have gone for quite simple poses it the examples I have selected – hopefully I will become more proficient as the course progresses.

On the technical front, I have also learnt.  I chose to use an 85mm f1.8 lens that until recently I used relatively rarely.  I always focus on the eye with the focusing grid switched to the central focus point only.  This has always worked for me but here it was somewhat hit and miss.  A surprisingly high proportion of my shots were slightly misfocused.  Part of this can be attributed to the shallow depth of field at f2.8  which amounted to a mere 2cm when approaching the lens’s minimum focusing distance of 88cm.  However, I have also learnt that I tend to prefocus on the right eye and so when it’s the subject’s other eye that leads towards the camera then, in my opinion, the blurred leading eye that results doesn’t work. I also suspect that I have been too quick to assume I have accurate focus and need to pay more attention in the future.

In all the images selected, I used fill-in flash with flash exposure compensation of -2 stops. Although I have previously used fully automated fill-in flash, this is the first time I have overridden it in order to prevent is seeming too overpowering.  I hope that choosing to use this technique has given the images a slight lift.  I note that in some cases, it has meant that by brightening the subject, I have also been able to choose an ambient light exposure that slightly darkens down the background.

Finally, in post production, I did some work on retouching the smile in the head and shoulders portrait by using a hue/saturation adjustment layer to reduce the saturation in the yellow tones and bring up the brightness.  The opacity of the adjustment layer was then reduced to make the effect look natural – I hope this worked. In image P1-B, I also slightly warmed up the skin tone within Lightroom – although perhaps this is now inconsistent with the other images.

I’m looking forward to learning more on project 2.

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