Saturday, January 13, 2007

Calm on top, paddling like crazy beneath the surface

A couple of people have commented on how lucky I am to have so many subjects willing to pose for me. I agree. I have wonderful friends. But the reality is that I also put quite a bit of effort in up front to make these shoots go quickly and appear simple and effortless. Most of the actual shoots are brief - 5 or 10 minutes per person is what I'm aiming for. I don't want to intrude beyond that. But prior to that there is often a week or more of email, discussion and cajoling that goes on. In some cases, the 5 or 10 minutes of shooting took two months from asking if I could take the picture to actually getting together to shoot it.
I think many people only ever have had their portraits done in the assembly line of school pictures or perhaps in the mayhem of their wedding day. So when I first ask if I can take someone's picture, there's all those 'fun' experiences that flashes into their head. So I need to get beyond that barrier and explain what I'm wanting to to - why I want to take their picture. Also, the majority of people are just shy about having their picture taken, lots of perfectly normal doubts and insecurities surface - it all seems much more formal than a quick snap at a party. I suspect most people are secretly flattered to be asked, but there is also usually a lot of questions or reticence about it. I show samples of what I've been doing (which is getting easier now that I have actually got more samples to show). Having a web site with the images on it helps a lot too. I can point people right at what the pictures will look like. I try to answer the questions or put the fears to rest. So far nobody has turned me down - though that's also fine if someone isn't interested. Nobody has to take part!
The other thing that pays off big time is asking more than once. That follow-through or persistence seems to count. People take you more seriously if you actually set up a date and try to schedule it in somewhere. It also gives them time to mentally prepare, to be in the right place and be ready to give you 10 minutes of their time, rather than just springing it from nowhere, with a camera in hand. I usually try to give some guidance about clothes or at least general styles that will work and we try to pick a time when the light should be good.
Before I turn up, I try to think through where I want to shoot. I'm lucky for this project because part of the aim is to shoot in familiar places - people's homes, or spaces that we spend a lot of time in. So I usually have some idea of what the location will be like. I'm thinking ahead for good windows facing away from the sun for even, easy to use light (such as in the shot with Arun) or else I'm looking for something that will work well as a background in good light. For the shot with Michelle, I saw where I wanted to shoot her about 4 hours before we actually shot there - a bright yellow wall - but when I saw it, it was in full sunlight. So I waited for the light to change and we happened to be near there that afternoon as well and I suggested we go and shoot. It took about 5 minutes total, from her perspective, but only because I'd been trying to find the right location all day. I also spend time thinking about what poses or expressions I want to get. People very strongly reflect the mood of the photographer, so if you are high energy, the shoot will be high energy. If you are quiet, the shoot will be quiet - so I have to get into the right frame of mind for the results I want to get. I also get the camera set up so that I can pay as little attention to it as possible and spend all of the time trying to talk to the subject, interact and move towards the results I want. I'll direct a bit but not a whole lot. Often I just try to talk about something I know will engage their attention and then just watch and shoot when I see the things I want happening. I'll try to guide the conversation in the right direction but I'm really aiming to keep things natural and flowing. The main thing I'm trying to pay attention to is the catchlights in the eyes and how the shadows are working in the scene. I'll occasionally check that the shutter speed is fast enough or that I'm getting a good exposure on the histogram but that's all I do with the camera. I use a small, prime lens (85mm 1.8) to avoid the lens looking too big or imposing, which is intimidating. The camera is often on a tripod so my head can appear out from behind it and make some eye contact while talking. Expressions change quickly so I try to react and shoot a lot, knowing that I'll miss some shots but that I can get natural responses rather than something that is really stiff or posed.


rennie said...

Great post and great picture. This is what I would like to achieve somwhere in the future. I love the natural charm of your pictures and relaxed feeling abvious in your model faces.

John M. Setzler, Jr. said...

Gordon, this hpoto is a lot of 'fun'... I think its great.. good work as usual :)

Jen Price said...

This is really wonderful. I love the "Life" in this photograph but I also really love the soft muted cool colors throughout. Reading how you take the time to set all these "spontaneous" looking photos of friends up is very interesting and helpful too. Thanks for that. :)

Mike said...

Hi Gordon,

I've not been around for a few days courtesy of my schedule at work. These images are excellent. Thanks for the commentary on each shot and your technique. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

Ancientimages said...

I so enjoy your writing, along with your photos. I look forward to seeing what you create with your Ironman Arizona idea. Good luck!

T-Mayer said...

I am captivated by the explanations of your shots. This shot is fun and flirty. I get the impression he is trying to impress the girl.