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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A Good Day

Life is busy.  Life means family, friends, work, responsibility, and, hopefully, some fun along the way.  Everything that touches our lives requires a great deal of time, effort, and more work.  Life is beautiful in many ways but, at times, it can be exhausting as well.  Amid all of that busy life stuff are good days and bad days.  Hopefully, for all of us, there are many more of the former and far less of the latter.  We never wish for bad days but, they can, and do, happen.  The best thing about good days is that we can plan them.

Quite often good days happen of their own accord.  Perhaps the weather is just right for working in your yard or taking a walk, maybe you laugh with your kids and share a moment that makes you smile, or possibly you simply enjoy the beauty of the day.  Good days happen, but many times you can, and should, create your own good day.  In the past many weeks I have been on the run with work constantly.  I love what I do, very dearly, but, months have slipped away quickly while I dashed from job to job.  Sadly, I have had very little time to myself which means I have had very little time for family, friends, and other responsibilities, let alone some fun.  Lack of time also means little energy for practicing my craft or tapping into any personal creativity.  That is not good.  I have burned the candle at both ends and subsequently life becomes a blur.  Photographers can’t have blurry vision!!!

I spent last week in Florida covering a PGA tournament.  The work schedule was incredibly hectic but, I managed a few free hours on Wednesday morning.  A long time friend was working with me and we had not been out together shooting in a few years; we used to go often.  I planned a trip to a swamp for both of us and we spent our time exploring, talking about everything, laughing, and making images of nature.  The time spent reconnected me to a wonderful friend, rejuvenated me for the week, stirred my creative vision,  and motivated me to start the new year on a energized note.  It was a much needed break from what felt like a never ending schedule.   So often, a little can go a long way: much like a kind word, a helping hand, and being nice to each other.  It was a very good day.  For me, being out with my camera puts me in a special place where I see and feel the world to such an extent that it makes “me” better.  My photography is my solice.  We all need to find that niche that soothes our soul and fuels are drive to be the best we can be, always.  Little did I realize that just two days later, December 14th, my beloved New England, and our country, would have its collective hearts broken in the wake of senseless, cruel, and unspeakable violence.  My good day no longer mattered but, for us to all heal, especially those devasted families, we need to somehow move beyond the worst of days and plan for better ones ahead.  Better days start with us, at home, around our kitchen tables talking to each other and to our children.  Better days start with us once again embracing the value of life and instilling those values, and common sense, into our every day living.  Lets plan for better days.  Our children cannot afford for us to accept, live with, or disregard the worst of days.

Do not be greedy.  Do not be selfish.  Do not forsake the needs of others.  However, take time and invest in yourself and your self.  We cannot begin to move forward as a whole until we heal as individuals.  For us to be at our best as a nation, we must first be at our best as individual people.  Take stock of your self and make the changes necessary so our children grow to be better than we are, or ever could be.  Everything in our lives begins, or ends, with us.  Right now, more than ever, we must reflect upon ourselves, our communities, and our society.   Right now, more than ever, we all need the solice of a good day.

Peace to all.

Don Toothaker

“Photograph What You Feel”

 

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Emotion in Motion

I am an emotional person therefore, I am an emotional photographer.  Whenever I am in the field, I do my best to photograph with purpose.  How can I not?  What happens in the world has a profound effect on me. Making images of my world has a lasting, meaningful effect on me.  What I see today stays with me through many, many tomorrows.   When creating an image, to me, it is my composition that defines my story and my set shutter speed that adds drama.  However, it is my emotion that dictates both.

The world is in constant motion.  Time and light never stand still.  As photographers we can stop action in an instant but, it is just that – one fleeting moment.  No sooner has the image appeared on our LCD screen than time carries on.  However, not everything needs to appear  frozen in time.  Shutter speeds allow us to capture many types of scenes; varying our shutter speeds allows us great creativity.  Being a photographer makes me very happy but, it is the process of making images that fulfills the greatest part of me.  The process goes well beyond just pushing some buttons.  The process means being involved, physically and mentally, in why you pushed the buttons.  This is the difference between taking a snapshot and creating an image.  I want to look back at my image and remember the feeling of THAT moment, not simply view a photo.

Just like time and light, emotion is in constant motion as well.  Your emotions can be a great tool if you use them in your creative process.  When I say “Photograph What You Feel”, I mean just that.  A slow shutter speed can render your scene with different feeling.  A slow shutter speed transforms moving water into smooth wisps of white that can look like cotton candy.   I love that.  A slow shutter speed blurs action and conveys a feeling of increased action. This is very dramatic.  Panning is when you purposefully move your camera during your exposure.  This technique has long been used for blurring out a background while keeping your main subject sharp as you track them in motion (such as a running horses, or kids playing soccer, or a race car).   I like to pan my camera during exposures to “paint” a scene and give it a more creative, abstract feeling.  Most often, I do this with trees and the colorful coast as my subject.  There is no right or wrong way to do it;  there is no better technique than another.  You simply set a longer shutter speed and move your camera, either horizontally or vertically, during the exposure.  The images you “keep” are all based on how you felt about what was before you.  Connect to your scene and be creative.  Do more than just push buttons on your camera.  Visualize the moment and create what you feel.

During a recent workshop we were at Annisquam Light for sunset.  The bold, bright colors in the sky created beautiful reflections on Ipswich Bay.  I composed my scene to capture the colors of the sunset in the sky and water but, also have some part of land mass visible for scale and contrast.  I clicked and clicked and clicked but, nothing resonated with me as a “keeper”.   As the light began to fade I became more anxious, more hurried, to capture an image that shared the beauty of this sunset.  I felt like I was going to lose the moment since I could not freeze the scene with a press of my shutter.  Staring out over the bay I could literally see time and light moving and, with it, my opportunity was fading away.  Wait!  I could SEE time and light moving!  That was it!  I quickly changed my perspective, set my exposure, loosened the lateral movement of my Kirk ballhead, and panned with the moving light.   I did not want to freeze the action;  I wanted to capture the feeling of a beautiful sunset moving over the bay.  In a moment I felt my image and created it.

Occasionally, it is best to slow everything down and move with time.

 

Photograph What You Feel

Don Toothaker

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Push It: Push It Real Good

I want to be a good photographer.  No, actually I want to be a GREAT photographer.  I admit it.  Ever since I bought my first SLR many years ago I have worked hard at teaching myself how to improve my photography skills.  Whether I am shooting an assignment, working on my own, or helping other photographers I do everything I can to create good images.  But, perhaps, I put too much emphasis on HOW to get it good images.  Using good technique and  fundamentals is STILL essential but, rules are meant to be broken and the ability of today’s cameras let you break those rules like never before.

 

Current digital cameras are loaded with capability and potential.  Yes, potential is a significant part of that equation.  The innovations in DSLR’s give every photographer unlimited potential to make images in a variety of scenarios.  I find it ironic that much of the discussion about new cameras revolves around how good they are at the high ISO settings but, we never really push those limits that much – at least I don’t.  My new Nikon D800 is fantastic at ISO 3200 but, time and time again I am on a tripod shooting at ISO 100 to make sure my image is as sharp as possible, with as little noise as possible, and with the best color and contrast possible.  Good technique and fundamentals are VERY necessary but, they are not exclusive to ISO 100 and a tripod!  One thing I love about teaching is how much I learn as well.  From now on I vow to be, on occasion, a total rebel with my camera.

 

 

This past weekend on our workshop in Portland Maine, we had a few occasions to shoot at high ISO’s with NO tripods.  I loved it.  I loved pushing the limits of technology and myself!  One afternoon we walked around the Old Port for a couple of hours and we challenged the class to bring ONE lens and no tripod.  Yup, Bob and I went totally rogue.   With no tripod it was necessary to move your ISO to 400 or 800.  Guess what, people got some great, sharp, colorful images!  Then we ducked into a dahk bah (said in my best Boston accent) and ordered some lunch.  Since it took forever to get some food, I took the opportunity to crank my camera up to ISO 3200 and shoot some portraits in the pub.  I encouraged others to do the same.  In much less time than it took to get our burgers, most of the class was dialing up their ISO’s and shooting snippets of people and things at Gritty’s.  Guess what, people got some great images!  Yup, you heard it here: good, fun, meaningful images can be found at ISO 1600 and above!  Current digital camera’s let us get the shot we want, right NOW!  All three of the images below were taken with my D800 at ISO 3200.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, never abandon good technique, never ignore the fundamentals, and understand how to create the best image possible wherever you may be but, don’t be afraid to push the limits of your camera – you paid for all of that technology so, use it!

 

 

Photograph What You Feel!

Don

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BE A PHOTOGRAPHER!

BE A PHOTOGRAPHER: Specializing in certain subjects is fine (macro, scenics, architecture…..). But if you want to learn more about what you really like to photograph shoot something different.  Know why?  It’ll help you in your use of your camera and improving your photography in general.

I went out today to photograph the Jumper Classic in NH and photographed horse jumping.  Now is this something I’m really interested in? No, not really!  Did I enjoy it? Absolutely.  Did I learn anything.  Absolutely!  Checking my backgrounds and using AI servo and not using image stabilization.  The photo here is one of my favorites (I got many by the way).   Look at the rider’s concentration and how balanced the horse is going over the jump.  And check out that little red flag.  I was taking my photos in bursts of three images at a time.  My early photos all showed the horse on the way down.  I had to anticipate to allow time for my brain to say “INDEX finger….take the shot NOW”.
All in all a great experience.  I would recommend something like this to all photographers whether you’re into horse jumping or not as it’s a very worthwhile learning experience for all photographers!
Regards, Bob Ring
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Facing My Creative Beast

Creativity is my photographic Achilles Heel.  I feel confident with my equipment, I feel confident composing a scene, and I feel confident photographing a variety of subjects.  Despite all of that, creativity remains a personal beast that I struggle to tame.  Creativity is what separates good images from spectacular images.  I routinely encourage other photographers to think out of the box and push their vision but, it is me that needs to heed this advice more than anyone.  I, Donald Edward Toothaker, struggle to be creative.

So often I read about photographers envisioning an image before shooting it.  Ansel Adams did it.  Lou Jones does it. Joe McNally exemplifies it. These photographers cultivate their vision by paying attention to light and subject throughout the day.  They have the ability to see beyond the moment to another day, or another season.  Some of that is experience that comes with time, but, most of that is raw instinct.  Their planning is a pre-visualized path to spectacular images.   I understand exactly what these visionaries are saying but, too often my own creative voice eludes me.  I want to be better; I need to be better.

Creativity comes from within but, inspiration to be creative is provided by events, and people, that surround us every day.  Within every photographer is a visual voice that craves inspiration.  The trick, I think, is to welcome inspiration whenever possible but, act upon it with patience and clarity.  Inspiration does not come in a neat, packaged box; it comes from connecting to your subject.  The more you invest of yourself  in your photographic process the more rewarding your images will become.  Take the time to understand your subject and explore your creative voice.  Emotion is part of the photographic process:   Photograph What You Feel.  In general, I am not very well spoken, my edges are rougher than most, and my inner voice is too often a mere whimper but, I DYING to be creative.  I have potential. We all have potential.

This weekend I had, for me, a great success.  I photographed my beautiful daughter posing in a stand of familiar Red Pine trees but, it was so much more than that.  The success is not so much in the image itself but, in my vision of the image weeks before I pressed the shutter.  I had vision.  One night this spring while sitting next to my campfire I watched night creep through the woods just as it does in the city:  a slow parade of twilight blue giving way to total darkness brought inspiration.  Immediately, I envisioned “blue” Red Pine trees.   I was excited to make that image right then but, I knew that summer-time would yield an image with green vegetation growing around the base of the trees for added color and interest.  I waited.  Then, this past Saturday I was picking blueberries with my daughter among the Red Pines when inspiration struck again:  watching my daughter move among the trees I now wanted a red headed Fairy Princess in “blue” Red Pines for scale, impact, and visual interest.  I could hardly wait for twilight.


At twilight I set up my camera and lighting, posed my daughter, and pressed the shutter on images that I had envisioned weeks before.  I saw, I felt, and I planned.  Due to my inspiration, I made a quick series of beautiful images that I will treasure forever.  No, I am not Ansel Adams, Lou Jones, or Joe McNally, but for a single, beautiful twilight I had vision just like them.  I, Donald Edward Toothaker, was creative.  You can be too.

 

Photograph What You Feel

Don

 

Image information

“Soft Blue Fairy Princess”

Nikon D800

Nikon 24-70 lens

ISO:  100

APT: f6.3

EXP:  1/4 second with White Balance set to Tungsten

SB900 gelled with color correcting filter and triggered using PocketWizard TT1, TT5, and AC3

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