Anatomy of a Portrait

One of my New Years resolutions is to do more portraiture.  My preference is to create environmental portraits when possible.  During the last week of December I asked my friend, Danny Ovalle, to let me create some portraits of him.  I had two specific goals in mind and, thankfully, he graciously accepted my request.

Danny Ovalle is the pastor at First Church of Christ in Bradford.  The job title says part-time but, sharing the gospel is a full-time calling for Danny.  He is a man of deep and unwavering faith.  That faith is the cornerstone for all that he does.  Danny is a husband, a father, and a full-time employee of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission.  He is also a friend, in the truest sense of the word, as well as, brother, uncle, and comforting voice to many.  Most impressive is that he is fully present in all of his endeavors.  I have never met anyone like him before.  A bit more than average height, Danny, to me, is larger than life.

I had two specific images in mind when I met Danny at the church.  This was the first one.  I used two lights in the making of this image.  One Nikon SB910 was to the right of the camera mounted in a 24 x 24 softbox.  This flash was set to TTL mode.  TTL means that the flash, lens, and camera all work together to meter the necessary amount of light to make a proper exposure.  The softbox does nothing but soften the light and control its spread.  I set the light and softbox about 4 feet from Danny who was standing in one of the aisles.  I wanted one side of his face clearly lit with some shadowing on the other side.  Shadows create depth and depth creates interest.  The second light was mounted about 40 feet behind Danny and to the camera’s left.  I put a snoot on this Nikon SB910 and aimed it directly at the red velvet wall tapestry.  My goal was to illuminate only the large Christian cross on the tapestry.  A snoot is, in essence, a tube that shapes the pattern of light into more of a beam.  This second light was set to Manual mode and set to 1/16th power.  I needed more of a poof of light than a blast of light.  I wanted the cross to be clearly visible but, lit subtly.

I chose to use my 70-200 f2.8 lens to compact the scene and make the tapestry cross look closer than it really is.  I also chose a point of view lower than Danny’s eyes.  By looking up at him, I am trying to give viewers the sense of how he is larger than life.  The large Christian cross just over his shoulder, his left shoulder near his heart, was done very much on purpose.   On my camera I had mounted my Pocketwizard TT1 control unit and my AC3 TTL control unit.  Both flashes were equipped with PW TT5’s.  The TT1 is a transmitter and the TT5’s are receivers.  The AC3 allows me power output control to each flash from the top of my camera.  Using the radio signal and TTL control of the Pocketwizards is powerful, creative, and reliable.  Once I had the lighting the way I wanted it, I made about a dozen images.  This was my favorite from this set up.  I processed the image in Lightroom 4 and then made my conversion to black and white using Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2.  During the processing, I chose to put a vignette around each edge of the image to slightly darken the edges and keep the viewer “in” the scene.

Nothing in this image is spontaneous.  Everything you see was very carefully planned from the composition, to the lighting, to the final processed photo.  I wanted more than just a portrait.  My goal was a story telling image that would convey the warmth, the light, and the magnitude of my friend.  I photographed what I felt.

Don

“Photograph What You Feel”Danny Ovalle_DT8_1096-1

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Identify What Works and Work on It!!!

I say it all the time.  I mention it at every workshop.  I bring it up in every critique session.  I preach it to the point of people being sick of hearing me say it.  But, there IS a point when I say “Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”.  I know it’s a boring statement, I know it sounds fairly lame, I know it is not a nugget of wisdom that the photo gods will applaud me for but, it’s a true and virtuous piece of advice.

“Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it” 

Think about that statement.  Read it and think about it.  Say it out loud if you have to.  Write it on your hand if you have to.  Do anything you can to remember it.  It works.

When you are in the field and find a scene that resonates with your feelings and your eye, take the time to identify what it IS you like and focus on that with your compositions.  In the process, look for things that DON’T work (distracting elements that are shiny, out of place, or impose upon your borders will distract the viewer from what you DO like) and eliminate them during your composition.  To me, this is essential.  To me, this is a giant step toward making images instead of taking pictures.

 “Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

Last night I went to my son Danny’s basketball game.  He is 9 years old and plays in a league with other 9 and 10 year olds.  This is his first year playing basketball so, like his other sport endeavors, I wanted one great “keeper” shot of him playing hoops.  Once the game started I realized I had much more working against me than the horrible gymnasium lighting.  Nine year old kids run a lot and they run around even more.  To say the game was a chaotic mess is an understatement.  Nine year old kids don’t play positions.   What they do is chase the ball like a pack of wolves running down an elk.  I tried and tried to get a great shot of him, isolated, dribbling or shooting the ball but, there were too many little bodies running amok to get the image I had envisioned.  Fail.

“Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

 So, I stopped shooting and thought about what was going on in front of me.  I watched the game and thought about all the movement.  There were sneakers squeaking all over the wooden floor, there were bright colors rushing past, there were arms and legs everywhere, and  there was the sound of someone dribbling the ball.   I watched and then I changed my perspective.  By changing my perspective, I came home with some images I am thrilled with.  I came home with images that FEEL like the game I watched.  I wrote about this same revelation a few weeks ago in my blog “Emotion in Motion”.  Changing your perspective and making adjustments in the field is critical to your photographic success.

Taking photos in an old school gym is difficult at best.  A flash has no effect and the available light is HORRIBLE.  I already knew that I would be shooting my D800 at ISO 6400 and higher in order to get a shutter speed fast enough to stop some action.  I knew this would mean more contrast and grain in my images, so I already had visions of black and white images with an old school photojournalistic edge to them.  I planned to shoot my 85mm f1.8 lens on my full frame camera to bring in as much light as possible and get rid of the backgrounds.  I just needed Danny in a reasonably close position to get what I wanted while I walked up and down the sideline.  Once I realized my initial vision would not work I changed my perspective and my tools.  I switched to my 70-200 f2.8 lens.  This was NOT going to let in more light but, it meant I could reach further onto the floor to isolate a new vision.  I cut my ISO to 3200 on purpose to slow my shutter speed down intentionally.  I sat on the floor and began to focus on the elements in front of me:  squeaky sneakers, blurs of moving color, and a bouncing basketball.  I smiled and got to work.

“Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

I chose a low vantage point that would allow me to shoot the legs and feet of the kids as they rushed past me.  I purposefully panned with them and chose a slower shutter speed to convey the feeling of movement in my images.  Instead of an isolated shot of him with a basketball, I now wanted to take home the motion of my son playing basketball.  Success!

When you are in the field and faced with a difficult situation, do NOT be afraid to change your vision.  We all have pre-conceived ideas of what “works” and what doesn’t.  We tend to think of portraits in one way but, an image of just hands IS a portrait.  We tend to think of landscapes as wide angle images showing a broad range of space but, patterns of sand at the beach, close up, is still a landscape.  Action photography does NOT always meaning freezing action.

 “Identify what works in a scene and work on it.  Identify what does NOT work in a scene and eliminate it”

 Like everyone else, I am constantly learning.  Many times I have to remind myself to look past the obvious and find another way to photograph my chosen subject.  The lighting and chaos in the gym was NOT going to change so, I had to change ME.  For some reason, THAT always seems to be the hardest part.  Change is good.

“Photograph What You Feel”

Don

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Be a Better Photographer in 2013

Tomorrow at midnight we welcome a new year.  2012 was an exciting time for New England Photo Workshops.  We held more training classes than ever, we conducted more workshops than ever, and we explored more of New England than ever before.  The year 2013 promises to be just as busy and even more exciting.  Bob and I started this venture 3 years ago and neither of us anticipated “it” ever growing as it has.  We are humbled, we are proud, and we are profoundly thankful to say the least.

Every workshop is designed to offer attendees a variety of subjects at carefully chosen locations throughout New England.  We believe it is essential in your growth as a photographer to be as multi-dimensional as possible.  Being a photographer is much more than just pressing the shutter to take a picture.  Photography is a process that requires attention to detail, knowledge, and commitment.  Technology and modern digital SLR’s open up vast potential for successful image making but, there are a few other things you can do in 2013 to make yourself a better photographer as well.

KNOW YOUR TOOLS:

Your camera is just a tool.  Like any tool, the more you understand how to use it the better your results will be.  Many times in the field, or shooting a job, you HAVE to know how to make adjustments quickly and effectively based on changing conditions.  You invested a lot of money in your camera so invest your time in learning it as well.  Take time and become comfortable with your photographer gear. Review your menus, understand how to make changes in the functions of your camera, and learn where all the buttons are.  Yes, your camera is nothing more than a tool but, if learned and used properly, it can become a powerful extension of you.  The more you know about your camera, and your lenses, the greater potential you have to be a successful photographer.

BE A NATURALIST:

I cannot stress this point enough.  Knowing your subject is critical to success when you are in the field.  This holds true for nature and wildlife photography more than anything else.  You cannot photograph a Lady Slipper if you do not know when and where they bloom.  You cannot consistently photograph wildlife if you do not understand their behavior and their habitat.  Just as it takes time to know your camera, you have to invest time in knowing the environments you photograph in. New England is a very diverse region of the country with many habitats, varied landscapes, and numerous flora and fauna.  The more you understand the many elements of nature the more your library of successful photos will grow. Study your environment and learn.  If nothing else, its fun to know stuff!

BE A CONSERVATIONIST:

We cannot photograph subjects if they are not here.  It is as simple as that.  Take care of the world we live in and yes, your photography will prosper.  Take responsibility for YOUR impact on the world around you.   Clean up after yourself, use common sense, and obey rules laid out to protect our environment.  Support local community organizations that protect our natural resources, our historical locations, and our many parks.  Monies and budgets are constantly slashed from many worthwhile organizations so, your contributions are critical to their continued missions.  Their missions are for the benefit of all of us.  Help them help us.  None of us can afford donating to EVERY organization but, I would suggest you pick one and support it.  The money and effort you invest will be returned in the form of opportunity and knowing you made a difference for generations to come.  Preservation and conservation is a must for everyone, not just photographers.

PRACTICE:

It is difficult for anyone to take their camera out and, in an instant, create a great image if you don’t practice.  No one can expect to create a great image during a once in a lifetime trip if you cannot create a great image in your own backyard.  Practice, practice, and more practice.  Think globally and shoot locally.  Take a ride or walk and explore your neighborhood, your town, or your county.  Not everything you shoot needs to be for a class, a competition, or a purpose other than learning.  Hone your skills by shooting often and practicing the proven fundamentals of photography.

SET PERSONAL GOALS:

In photography, just like life, it is important to know your strengths and your weaknesses.  One significant benefit of the digital era is you have immediate feedback to your success or failure with any image.  We all celebrate our keeper images but, study your mistakes and learn from them as well.  Identify shortcomings in your photography and set goals to improve upon them.  Even the best of photographers still set goals to push themselves and challenge their creative vision.  Combine your goals with the other points on this list and your photography WILL improve.

Photography is, and can be, many things.  As an art form, it is dramatic and powerful.  As a visual form of communication, it is bold and captivating.  Nonetheless, most importantly, photography is a highly personal method of self-expression.  Much of your success will be based upon how much time you are willing to invest in your creative vision and voice.  Achieving success as a photographer, to me, means first investing as much of yourself as possible in the process of photography.  Enjoy all that photography has to offer, practice sound fundamentals, and compelling images will happen.  Above all else, always remember, success is only measured by your own standards.  You have no one to please but yourself.   Everything after that is just a bonus.

Express yourself visually more than ever in 2013, be happy, and be safe.  Happy New Year!.

“Photograph What You Feel”

Don

 

Some of my personal photography goals for 2013:

1)      To be a better leader and instructor

2)      To continue work on my “Haverhillat Night” series

3)      To display more of my personal work

4)      To write more and post more blogs

5)      To become a better portrait photographer

6)      To learn more about location lighting with my Nikon speedlights and light modifiers

7)      To become a better Black and White photographer

8)      To become a very good print maker

9)      To learn more about, and explore, more ofNew England

10)  To be a more patient photographer

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The Versatility of You

Digital Photography is incredible.  Never before has our potential as photographers been so unlimited.  Today’s cameras are loaded with technology and capable of producing a broad range of results.  All they need is our creativity to make them shine!  We all should strive to be the best photographers we can be; not just the best portrait photographer or sports photographer or wedding photographer.  Your camera is loaded with versatility and you should be as well.

For me, one of the greatest aspects of digital photography is the opportunities it offers.  Pour yourself a cup of coffee, or something a bit stronger if desired, and spend some time studying your camera.   Look it over and learn its buttons and menus.  Understand what YOU need to do to make adjustments in the field.  How do you change your ISO?  Where is your histogram?  Does your camera have bracketing for HDR shooting?  Can you view your images in Black and White?  How do you set focus tracking?  Where do you set file size?   Contemplate what the camera and its technology is capable of.  Then, think about what it can do when combined with your creativity.  It is critical to know your gear but, it is even more essential to realize your aspirations  as a photographer.  The camera is just a tool and, ultimately, it is only as good as you are.  How good do you want to be?   Be aware, be creative, and be versatile.

The latest line of DSLR’s, both pro and consumer grades, give us more versatility than ever.  Seven years ago I bought my first DSLR – the 6 megapixel Nikon D70s.  It was a great consumer grade camera but, struggled at any ISO higher than 400.  I shot scenic’s at ISO 100 and used ISO 400 for sports/low light shooting.  I never went over ISO 400 unless I had to:   very similar to how we worked with film when you think about it.   My new Nikon D800 is a 36 megapixel powerhouse that will transform 35mm digital photography as we know it.  Right now, it gives me once unimaginable potential and versatility.  I welcome  that.
When I was a film shooter and headed to Maine for a weekend, I would typically bring 10 rolls of Fuji Velvia for pretty scenic’s, 10 rolls of 400 speed Fuji Provia for shooting in lower light, and 5 rolls of Kodak Black and White TMAX 400.  Each film had a job to do that was necessary but, costly and, at times, frustrating.  It would never seem to fail that I had half a roll of Velvia still left in my F5 but, now wanted to shoot a portrait in Black and White.  Instead of wasting film, I wasted opportunities.  Now, I dial a button and blow away anything that those films could ever do.  Think about that.  Think about the amazing versatility of that from a technology standpoint.  Now, think about the versatility of that as a photographer.  In a moments notice you can adapt to any situation and capture it with beautiful results.  That is not only very exciting but, it is highly empowering.
All of us should be very excited at the options available to us through technology.   The increasing resolution of today’s camera’s gives us breathtaking detail.  Being able to produce high quality images at ISO’s of 1600, 3200, and 6400 is mind boggling.   I can be in my garden shooting macro shots at ISO 100 and capture fine detail and rich colors.  A short time later, in order to defeat a frustrating breeze,  I can change my ISO to 800 and create a sharp, abstract image with similarly beautiful results. Then, just a few minutes later, change my ISO to 3200 and catch a GREAT portrait of my cat in poor, indoor light.  The power of versatility.   Wow.  No, seriously, Wow!!  
Technology continues to grow at an amazing pace but, to make it effective you must grow as well.  Having the latest, greatest camera does not make you a photographer.  YOU make yourself a photographer.  Push the limits of technology but, push your imagination just as far.  Nurture your creative energy, embrace the versatility of your camera, and harness the power of “you”.   The LCD screen and histogram give immediate feedback on your successes, your failures, and your necessary adjustments but, the best results all come from within.
How Versatile are You?
Don
“Photograph What You Feel”
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Old Friends

I turn to my camera often when I am compelled to be creative and expressive.  My trusty Nikon’s never fail to be a source of great comfort for me.    I feel safe with them, secure with them, and inspired with them.  They are constant companions and familiar “friends” as I explore my world and pursue my love of photography.  The images I make are a part of me.  They too are like old friends but, what happens to the images I DON’T process?

The creative process, for me, is something very personal, spiritual, and meaningful.  Every photo is taken with great purpose but, not every one works as a “final” image.   Too often my expectations exceed the final results but, one characteristic of experience is that I shoot less frames and come away with more “keepers”.  My workflow dictates that I immediately make a folder of my subject, download my images into the folder, and mark the images that I believe are notable.  Once done with those I make another pass through and look for more keepers.  I always find more but, inevitably there are many that never get much of a look, let alone processed.  I keep every image unless there is something excessively wrong with the photo.  Like my cameras, ALL of these images are my friends.  Like real life friends, we need to visit with them and nurture them and learn from them; even our mistakes.  They should not be forgotten.

I feel it is VERY important to go back and review your images at another time.  Almost every time I do this, I find an overlooked gem that now resonates with me.  In our enthusiasm to process what we believe to be good, we hurriedly overlook failed images that we can learn from and still work on.  Our skill set with software does nothing but improve and the software itself becomes more and more powerful.  Re-visiting our images from this year, last year, and years before should become an integral part of our creative process.  The advancements in Lightroom, HDR software, and Nik Software broaden our ability for post production.  Dig deep into your creativity and you WILL find more quality images in your library.   If nothing else, you will reconnect with images, places, and people who have meaning for you.

Go ahead, take the time to say hi to an old friend today; one way or another.

Don

“Photograph What You Feel”

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Only in New England

This past Sunday I was in southern Maine enjoying a fantastic day at the beach. Goose Rocks Beach is a beautiful stretch of white sand and cedar shingled homes just outside of Kennebunkport.  Not far from the beach there is fine dining, shopping, antiquing, and the booming, eclectic city of Portland.  Southern Maine is a worthy destination for a day trip, a weekend getaway, and photography.

 

Early that morning I had set out to shoot sunrise at the quaint seaside village of Cape Porpoise.  The lackluster sunrise yielded very few photos but, as always, I enjoyed watching the little harbor come to life in the early morning light.  Cape Porpoise is a working harbor that features colorful lobster boats, a fishing pier, and a lighthouse.  The area around the harbor was dotted with wild lupine, singing birds, and picturesque scenes.  Like many seaside locations there is always something to see and photograph along the coast of New England.

 

That night I drove three hours north to meet Bob at his family camp on Schoodic Lake.  The lake is a fairly remote area in central Maine that is surrounded by many  thousands of acres of forest.  This is the heart of paper company land, logging roads, wildlife, and farms.  In this part of Maine you are far more likely to see a moose than find any fine dining or eclectic shops.  The people of central Maine are hearty, hard working people that carve out practical lives amid the elements of nature.  Schoodic Lake seems a world away from the comforts of Southern Maine yet, brings its’ own sense of peacefulness with the sound of calling loons and gentle waves.

 

The next morning we were on the road early for Baxter State Park just outside of Millinocket, Maine.  Baxter is true wilderness.  Encompassing over 200,000 acres, the park was created through donations of land by private land owners and one governor, Percival Baxter, with great vision for maintaining a segment of the Great North Woods to be “Forever Wild”.  Within Baxter there are no showers, no flush toilets, no running water, no logging, and no inhabitants other than park officials and wildlife.  Surrounding Baxter is some of the most remote, rugged, wild land in New England.

 

We spent the entire day in and around the park photographing moose, deer, wildflowers, mountains, and the rugged beauty of the Great North Woods.  At one of our last stops I photographed a huge bull moose grazing at the edge of a pond.  He was wild and majestic.  I could not

help but reflect that just a short time before I was photographing lobster boats amid the affluence and comfort of Cape Porpoise and now here I was capturing images of North America’s second largest land mammal in Maine’s remote wilderness.  How lucky I am to live and work in such an amazing, diverse place.

 

Only in New England.

 

DET 2012

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