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.


“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”


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Are you taking portraits and selling prints to your clients?  Are you planning ahead for the different types of prints your customers may want?  How can you do that?  What do you need to know?  Lots of questions. A few simple things done during your portrait sessions will make it easier for you to easily provide the size prints your customers want.  It’s all about ratios.  OK, I’m not gonna go into some high level math here as my engineering days are behind me!  But a little ‘math’ knowledge will take you a long way.
Back to film!  What? Back to film! Yeah let’s start there.  35mm film is actually 36mm x 24mm (or 1.5″ wide by 1″ tall if in landscape mode).  So what’s the ratio of width to height?  Divide 1.5″ by 1″ and that equals 1.5 to 1.  Or 36mm divided by 24mm equals 1.5 to 1.  What does that mean?  The length (width) is 1.5 times bigger than the height.  From an Eagle song: “are you with me so far”?
Let’s go to print sizes:
– take a 7″x5″ print. What’s the ratio of width to height?  Take 7 divided by 5 and you get 1.4.  Seven is 1.4 times bigger than 5. Close to your sensor ratio.
– take a 10″x8″ print. What’s the ratio of width to height?  Take 10 divided by 8 and you get 1.25.  Ten is 1.25 times bigger than 8. A lot smaller than your sensor ratio!
– take a digital SLR image file (in my case I’ll use one from the Nikon D600). The file sz is 20″ by 13.3″ or a ratio of…..wait for it….1.5 to 1. Alternatively known as 3:2 ratio for the full frame sensors.
NOTE: all of the above pertains to FULL FRAME CAMERAS (like Nikon D600, D800, D700, Canon 5D, 5DII, 5DIII or the new 6D)

That’s great but what if I’m using an APS-C Sensor camera and Not a full frame?  How does that impact me? Well an APS-C sensor by Canon is 22.2mm by 14.8mm or a 1.5:1 ratio.  Nikon’s APS-C sensor is 23.7mm by 15.7mm or a ratio of 1.5:1. How about that!  Doesn’t matter what DSLR you’re using.

Here’s the question: You take some portraits of a family and they come out great.  Smiling faces and well lit.  You send the images to the clients and they love them.  Now they want a 5×7, an 8×10 and two 16×20 prints.  What happens if you filled the frame with the family? Remember your camera sensor ratio is 1.5 to 1 (width is 1.5 times larger than the height).  What’s an 8×10 ratio?  It’s 1.25 to 1 meaning that they want a print where the width is ONLY 1.25 larger than the height.  Doesn’t match your sensor ratio does it?  So what happens: to make an 8×10 print of your image it’ll have to be cropped such that the sides have to be squeezed in from the left and from the right.  The print ratio (of 1.25:1) is less than the sensor ratio (of 1.5:1). So the family of seven is now down to five!  Ooops!
So, I’m sure I’ve confused the hell out of everyone by now but to reel it all back in a picture is worth a 1,000 words right?  Check the images out below.
Yeah we’d like to ‘get it right in camera’ but what is right?  5×7 ratio or 8×10 or 11×14, etc?  Only your client knows and even then not until they see your images!  The key is to give yourself some room to go from Portraits to Prints!!
Bob Ring


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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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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”



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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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!


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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



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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