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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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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