Two Pictures: Hector Chapman

(This is another post that comes from my invitation to all of you to send me two of your pictures to get my thoughts on them. Send two photos at 544 pixels/72 dpi to me at tekamah at me dot com And explain something about the photos and something about your quandary with the two.)

This one comes from Hector Chapman, who says of the two pictures:

“After years in and out of photography I am attempting to move into portraiture ... Both images were actually test shots as I attempt to get my head around working with small strobes. I guess I want to know which image is better and why. Both images are straightforward portraits, their primary goal is to flatter the subject, at least to some extent, whilst still retaining something of the character of the individuals.”

Here are the pictures:

Both photos © Hector Chapman

Both photos are fine. They do what you set out to do – flatter the subjects with nice light.

One isn’t really better than the other. They feel very similar, given that each is similarly lit and composed and the subjects fill the frame equally.

How could they have been better? The one layer of what you set out to do that doesn’t come from the pictures is give a sense of the character of the individuals. Character is a combination of qualities that you as the photographer have to set out to convey. This is true in all types of photography but even more so in portraiture. We can’t simply pull down a menu of photographic techniques, choose one and hope that the essence of subject comes out because we chose an umbrella with 3/4 lighting, neutral background, mid-length telephoto and stood six feet from subject. 

Portraiture is an additive process that starts with understanding what you want to say about the person. Is he or she a jerk, the nicest person you’ll ever meet, lives in absolute chaos regardless of the setting or sublime peace in spite of absolute chaos, hates dogs, loves cats, world revolves around the color purple ... whatever, start by setting out to say something that is unique to that person or their settings and the photograph you make will be unique.

Then build the photograph to convey their unique qualities. Your tools to convey a quality in portraiture are light, color, composition and distance to the subject. A fifth element is moment but that holds true in portraiture only in the sense that the coming together of the other four elements will be unique, which is what a moment brings to a photography.

So let me make some assumptions about a quality of the two people you photographed and suggest an approach to making pictures to convey that quality.

Let’s assume that you wanted to introduce a feeling of tension in the photograph of your wife. Maybe you perceive that she is driven, that she is creative and caring but also can be hesitant and more internal than external. (I’m making this up.) So there is a duality, an oppositeness in these qualities, one of warm and cool, open and closed. You can use photographic elements to convey those qualities.

Do these things:

  • Set color balance to daylight or maybe cooler.
  • Move very close to her with a neutral-length lens.
  • Compose to use the curls of her hair to partially obscure her face.
  • Position the strobe so it just catches her left eye (Rembrandt) which would also more strongly highlight the curls.
  • Place the ambient light down half a stop to make it even warmer.
  • Work it, varying framing, distance, expression, amount of background.

This approach will create a sense of tension and drama that suggest something of her personality.

You said the man you photographed was very tired. The act of rubbing eyes doesn’t suggest that alone. People rub their eyes for a lot reasons. You can suggest tiredness through composition, quality of light and quality of color.

One of many possible approaches is to compose the scene with him small and at the bottom of the frame – let the weight of the frame weigh on him. It looks like the setting you used for this picture might work. There is tension in color between the green painting and brown jacket, that’s good. Isolate him in a pool of light from above with a snoot or grid - Honl makes inexpensive ones for flashes. Work with him to strike a pose that feels like the weight of the world, probably sitting down.

In both of these approaches, distance from the subject is as important in conveying a quality as is the light, composition or color. So it will be in all of your photographs if you use distance judiciously.

Two cents.

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