My portraiture project

October 03, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Those of you who read my irregular blogs will have noted that I have invested in new Godox flash gear of late. Has this been a classic case of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) I hear you ask, or have I been acquiring with a purpose? Well (as I could be expected to respond): it has been with a purpose. It's all about me wanting to do more portraiture.

I've been fascinated by portrait photography for as long as I can remember, but as I've also been intimidated by the challenges both technical and interpersonal, I've tended not to do much. Buying the flash gear was intended to overcome genuine technical barriers to making more portraits, and to effectively blackmail myself into getting off my backside and doing it.

So ... what have I done? I've created a project, and I have now completed the first step. I've also decided to extend the project as far as I'm able.

The project has been to photograph mature aged men at the local Men's Shed. What's a men's shed? It's a community-based organisation "... whose primary activity is the provision of a safe and friendly environment where men are able to work on meaningful projects".

My project has been to make environmental portraits of those members who wish to sit for me. Sitters can chose an image after I have "curated" them - which is a pretentious way of saying that I pick my preferred images before letting anyone else see them. After processing, I put up my picks and they can then chose an image to keep as a print. In doing so, they can veto any image they are unhappy about (and none have to date). They also have access to the images as JPEGs if they wish, and I have also promised the Men's Shed committee digital copies of the images for their advertising, reporting and the like.

So, how has it gone so far?

Well I'm glad you asked.  Earlier I would have replied "so, so" but as a result of my latest work, I'd say pretty good. I consider this image of Dave my best of the project to date.


Which is not to say that others aren't meeting my criteria. For example, I like these:

For the technically minded, each image was made with my Nikon D850 and either my Sigma 50mm ART f/1.4 prime or my 85mm Nikon f/1.8 prime. I decided on using my primes if at all possible because firstly, I rarely use them and secondly, because I love the images they produce: crisp and clean, yet with a buttery bokeh. The building I'm working in has much less light than you'd expect, so to avoid high ISOs (and "noisy" images), I'm using my Godox AD400 Pro flash. The camera is in manual mode, at ISO 64 (the lowest natural sensitivity for the Nikon) and flash set manually using my light meter. I considered using TTL for exposure as I've been happy with trials at home, but for reasons I now can't recall, I decided to go all manual.

I could have gone half way on this and used TTL to find exposure and then use the Godox TCM (TTL Convert to Manual) button to lock the flash to a manual setting, but I didn't ...

The Nikon has been hand-held and tethered to my Macbook running Capture One. This allowed me to have a better idea of the outcome than I could get from chimping the back of my D850 and also, to show my sitters what we had. The system has worked well.

So given this is a development project for me, what have a learned so far?

Firstly, and on the technical front: manual mode is your friend, and a light meter makes going manual so much easier (but it's not essential). My process has been to set up the AD400 on a stand, get my "sitter" positioned in an appropriate place in the workshop, and while standing with them, firing the flash with the radio trigger while measuring the flash with my light meter. Given that I can adjust flash output with the Godox trigger, I have been able to try two or three exposures if needed without having to go back and forth from sitter to gear. Then, for safety, I have been making one actual test shot with the Nikon and then - away I go!

Secondly, be flexible. When I set out with this project, I had a very particular format in mind but it became clear with my first sitter that it wouldn't work. I put it aside and moved on.

Thirdly, trust your sitters and work with them. Relax - and let them relax and they will find the right pose and expression nine times out of ten.

Fourthly, trust your own knowledge. Getting uptight just stops you using your knowledge - and if you're anything like me, you know more than you think!

Fifthly - an oldie but a goody: check the foreground, background and boundaries of your image before pressing the shutter! (This is one I've missed several times - and it's particularly important in the workshop setting I'm in.)

Finally, I've been surprised at some of the images people have chosen as their preferred photo. As photographers, we tend to look at images in a particular (or maybe, peculiar) way. People don't necessarily see the images the way you see them - and their choices may surprise.

So all in all, the project is proving challenging, interesting and informative. My skills are improving by the process of applying knowledge that has been largely theoretical until now. "Book learnin'" can't beat the practical in a craft like photography - although a good grounding in theory is essential to solve problems along the way!

My next steps are really to do more of the same. I will continue to photograph interested members at the local men's shed, but have also begun to put feelers out to other sheds. The nice thing is that my local shed is willing to vouch for me - so I haven't messed up too badly!

So, if you're at a loose end and looking for a challenge, a community-based portrait project (or maybe a community-based documentary project) may be the answer. It could challenge you, get you applying your knowledge, problem solving and extending your skill set.

Go for it!

Shane Baker
[email protected]



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