Sunday, April 25, 2010

portrait photography at the National Portrait Gallery

Our photographer for the day is Emily Harris ( who is interested in themes of male authority and power and has recently been photographing ex-servicemen who have been psychologically damaged by war.

She starts by taking us to see painted portraits of militia and statesman from bygone days that live upstairs in a couple of the National Portrait Gallery's rooms. There are various points of reference that she sought to imitate for effect such as 3/4 length portraits, fixed gazes, deep blacks in both the garmets worn and the background, lack of humour in the faces and more gravitas than usual, a light in the eyes, hands and face kept bright within the image and quite strong sidelighting that helps bring out facial features.

Recreating this in a studio portrait setting was done with a window light to one side and a reflector to the other to create a difference of about 1 stop (2 EV) of exposure between the two sides of the face. This took a little time to set up using a flashmeter in the process. The placement of the reflector was crucial as slight adjustments could make a lot of difference; the main window light needed to be slightly to the fore, giving light that raked across the image and brought out texture. The window light needed to be positioned in such a way that the background remained dark and unobtrusive.

It took a little time to operate the camera as one was unfamiliar with the digital set up of controls required to alter aperture (we were advised to use f16 not just for detail but to assist in fall off of light behind the subject), ISO ( we were advised to use 100 to avoid grainy prints while this film is also fairly true to life with regard to colour) and shutter speed (the recommended setting here was 1/125'th of a second to avoid any slight movement that might occur).

By the lunch break, we had got the set up right and produced a few images. I was happy to get shots of one of the two women I was working with that reflected the theme for the day .. that of authority and power. She looked quite imposing! After this I was not interested in doing much more. We did fool around with a bowler hat and a black veil but these images were not indicating anything other than what they were of.

An Italian woman, apparently a proffessional, came aropund taking photos. I felt it intrusive as we there were working to create something and explore the technique we had been shown. She fired away even asking me to pose with my hat on at which point I objected though later allowed her a few poses. My hat proved quite popular as a prop with other people from the day putting it on.

Emily was interesting to chat with. She has been to Gujerat where she studied at the National Institute of Design. She plans to visit Afghanistan this year! She contacts her military subjects by going to social events for the military.

Perhaps what I really learnt from this event was that a window and a reflector can be all you need to make portrait photographs with a bit of drama. Although this was not suggested, it is something I have been considering and now want to try. The addition of a reflector is not something I had thought of while one would need to consider the background; a wider aperture of f8 might be enough to keep the face, ears and hair in focus and hence create an abstract backdrop yet the bckdrop would still need to be considered in terms of form and brightness.

Sunday May 25'th 2010

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