It seems like I’ve been talking about a new portraits post for ages. As it turns out, it has in fact been almost exactly just over a year since I started working on this second portraits post. I have never claimed to be punctual.
My last portraits post contained only a handful of images, which I believed, at the time, to be the sum total of the portraits I had taken up to that point. That post contained a dozen images, all of which I was very proud of. Only a day or so after publishing that post, I discovered a few more images on my computer which were too good to leave be, so they got a quick followup post of their own. My thinking was, it had taken years to build up that many images that could be considered portraits, so it might be a while until I had enough to be able to publish another ‘portraits’ post; I’d better get them out whilst the proverbial iron was warm.
Since then, I’ve been sifting any portrait-like images from sets, holding them over and compiling another portrait set. As I procrastinated over writing the post, the shortlist of images got longer and longer. After building confidence photographing my niece and family (and to an extent, it becoming expected that I would occasionally photograph people as well as things) I began shooting more and more people. The shortlist continued to grow. Always writing more traditional posts, but quietly putting any portraits aside for later.
Eventually, the levees were going to break. So here we are, finally, finally looking at the portraits post I’ve been talking about for over a year. So let’s take a look at what I’ve got. I’m going to go through these in chronological order so that, hopefully, the learning curve can be apparent.
The first few images actually predate my first portraits post, images I overlooked or simply forgot whilst compiling the first compendium.
Although to be fair, this image of my friend Lewis was probably missed the first time round because the original in-camera image looked like this.
This next image is from just before the Bournemouth Air Festival in 2011; in fact, it’s a shot of my wife taken on the journey.
Before we get too far, I feel obliged to point out that this is going to be an image-heavy, text-light sort of post. I’d be grateful if you stick with it, because I’m really proud of these images.
Here, my best mate James is surprised by the lack of Creme Eggs, them having all been used in the Creme Egg Omelette we were in the process of developing.
And then, in the snow, revelling in the aftermath of such a creation.
Maybe ‘revelling’ isn’t the right word.
We’re now past the point where I had published my original portraits post, and buoyed by the quality and reactions of the post, I had become a little more self-aware when taking photographs of people I knew.
At some point preceding that I had been declared my niece’s ‘official’ photographer, so there was also the expectation on me that I would be photographing her and her family whenever we were in the same place. Much like a trip to London we took in March 2012.
This image actually currently serves as my sister-in-law’s Facebook cover photo, which is one of the main ways I measure the success of my portraits – if they’re prepared to use it to identify themselves on the world’s most popular social network, I think I’ve done okay (Catherine has, in fact, used two of my images as Facebook profile images in recent times – neither of which actually appear in this set, because they’ve already appeared in others).
You’ll notice I tend to prefer monochrome in portraits. This is partly because I find it does wonders for bringing out the details in people’s faces, but quite simply I find a lot of the images work better in black and white. That isn’t always the case, as this shot from later in the same day as the preceding image was taken shows.
It brings out the colours of the twilight setting. But I find monochrome works too.
And every so often I get distracted by the background.
As is often the case, when I’m experimenting with photography, my wife gets caught up in it. Here, she sits patiently whilst I played about portraiting with my macro lens.
As is often my way, when I take one picture I can’t help but take several more. Sometimes, more than one of them is keepable.
Although often I don’t always catch her in the most flattering of poses.
(that last shot, obviously, is from a different time).
Last April I went along to a barbecue for my niece Alayna’s first birthday, again in my capacity as official photographer. Filled with many people, it gave several opportunities to get some interesting images, this next one being my favourite.
That is another image that has become the Facebook Cover Photo of the person in it.
As it turned out to be a bit of a rainy day, however, most of the party took place inside, where, as ever, I struggled with available light, eventually pushing the ISO up to 5000 to get shots that were even approaching sharpness (but still not as sharp as I’d like).
A week later, I found myself at another birthday barbecue, this time for my dad. This meant that some of the people I photographed had more interesting faces.
This is my brother. I’ve not photographed him much in the past – the previous image of him I have dates back to 2006 – but it turns out he has really quite photogenic eyes.
I’m not sure why I was shooting at f/9. It was a year ago and everything from this day is at that aperture so it is entirely possible I forgot to change it. I do that less these days.
Unfortunately once my brother got tired of me photographing him he started to pull faces.
There were plenty of others at the barbecue to shoot, however. My aunt…
A family friend…
And my semi-cousin.
That was the barbecue. The next day, I had a visit from my niece, giving yet another opportunity to get some photos.
Almost all of the portraits I take (and I should note, I use the phrase ‘portrait’ to mean ‘any image that is only of a person’, rather than any pre-existing technical definition) fall into two categories: those shot on family visits, in which I’m mainly shooting people, or shots grabbed quickly on trips elsewhere, which are often of my wife and usually only number a few per trip.
This next image was taken whilst we were on our short trip to Greenwich last year. My wife doesn’t like it that much, but I do (the image I mean, not Greenwich). Usually I’m wrong about these things but you’re more than welcome to pick a side in the comments.
Later that same day we went for a meal, and found ourselves sitting by a nice bright window. At this point I was beginning to get used to using light to my advantage rather than work against it so whilst we were waiting for our food to arrive I couldn’t help but take my camera out. Fortunately my wife was cooperative.
Step forward a few days to the Twickenham Jubilee Festival, which my wife and I visited along with her sister, brother-and-sister in law and our niece. I still struggle with explaining my familial relationships in these things, one day I’ll just straight up post a family tree and let you figure it all out.
With so much family about there was plenty of opportunity to grab some portrait shots. Primarily of my very photogenic niece.
Still, it’s not all babies. Here is my brother-in-law, and his sister, who I surmise is my sister-in-law but I remain uncertain.
Here, meanwhile, is a far better shot of my brother-in-law, in which he’s actually looking at the camera.
I was shooting at f/9 again. I’m not sure why, I think I was trying to ensure everything was in focus after a few instances of focussing on the wrong bit of someone’s face.
After attending the festival, we found ourselves relaxing in a park, giving me more chance to photograph people, including an escaping baby.
Don’t worry though, she was soon caught.
This is one of those images that will always bug me, because I took a shot just before it that is better framed, but in which the expressions aren’t quite as good.
Shortly thereafter we went to a pub, and fortunately sat by a window giving me agreeable light again.
I even managed to get quite a few shots where my niece is looking down the camera, sometimes subdued…
But often quite content.
It was experiences like this that finally encouraged me to get myself a flashgun. A couple of weeks after the Jubilee Festival I bought a Canon Speedlite 430EX II, and quickly began to experiment with it.
In the early days it took a bit of fiddling about to get decent results – in the shot above the flash was bouncing off something white in order to diffuse the light effectively. I did a fair amount of playing about when I got the flash; most of the images ended up in a post called Getting Flashy, one of the few exceptions to my ‘portraits get their own post’ rule.
Whilst I was still getting used to the flash, I often found myself using natural light.
There was still plenty of occasions to photograph family ahead of me. In July we went to the Byfleet Parish Day with my nieces and nephews.
And also my brother-in-law, who was waylaid by our niece and nephew.
Meanwhile, my niece Alayna was not looking too cheery (although I’m sure she had a good time).
Sheltering from a downpour during an Olympic event some weeks later, I once again found myself sitting across a table from my wife near a window (the same table at which we had this scone and cupcake). This time, I decided to give my macro lens a whirl.
This remains one of my favourite shots I’ve ever taken of my wife.
Jumping forward a couple of weeks – as chronologically ordered posts spread out over the course of a year are wont to do – to the family gathering that formed a second exception to the ‘portraits get their own post’ rule, the post Bubbles (which remains one of my favourite posts in the history of Creative Splurges). I admit, I held a few images from that post back for this one.
The best thing about the restaurant we were in was the lighting. Oh man, the lighting! It was okay for Alayna in the image above, but for Lewis, sitting across from me at the table, I couldn’t have set the lighting up better if I was in a studio.
You’ve got key light, backlight, fill light, and a neutral background. It would have taken hours of setting up in a studio for me to get anything close to this (not least because I’ve never spent any time in a studio), but here was nature, laying it all out for me.
Lewis, helpfully, was glad to pose a bit.
My other sister-in-law (who is professionally photographed enough for me to rarely bother) rather nicely described these as ‘funeral shots’ – the sort you’d find at a funeral, in a frame resting on a coffin. Macabre, but kind of accurate.
After this, I had a bit of a break from portrait-style images. I didn’t take any suitable photographs of people from this day in August right up to Christmas Day. On Christmas Day we were again with family – as you’d expect.
As you can see, Alayna is getting bigger. My pictures of her start when she is still relatively factory fresh and I’m adding more all of the time. Since I pass all of these images along to her parents it sure is going to be fun for her when she brings her first boy- or girlfriend home.
Especially as she can, like all toddlers, get monumentally snotty sometimes.
It wasn’t just my wife’s family we saw over Christmas. My twin cousin had also relatively recently grown another child, one with amazing eyes.
He’s not one, however, to suffer fools, apparently.
And here’s his older sister, returning for a second time in this long post.
And my other twin cousin.
2013 was only a couple of weeks old before we had another visit from Alayna and her parents.
That’s not Alayna. She hasn’t grown that fast. This is her.
On this visit, I shot almost exclusively with my nifty fifty at f/1.8 to make the most of the light available. The downside was, as it was still deep into winter, was that even with natural light coming through the window, we needed to have the lights on inside, creating a bit of a clash of colour temperatures. I was able to fix it quite often, like in this next shot – one of my favourites, and one that’s been up on my wall next to my desk at work since the day after this was taken.
I would like for the Krispy Kreme company to give me money for this one. Or, I will take payments in doughnuts. I suspect, however, that promoting the feeding of high-sugar doughnuts to toddlers is something that would be frowned upon (especially for a product that declares on the underside of its box that it “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”).
Speaking of small attention spans, my brother-in-law looks pretty excited by this crayon.
Buoyed by this fresh batch of portraits, I started looking at ways of softening the light coming from my flashgun to get better, more natural results with ideally less faffing about. Firstly I experimented with using kitchen roll to diffuse the light a little. It took several sheets to get a noticeable effect.
You might recognise this as the image I’ve been using as my Twitter profile picture for a while.
It wasn’t good enough for me, so I started looking into alternatives.
In the meantime, I attended a meal with lots of family, so of course I took my camera. Being in a restaurant, however, I avoided using flash, forcing me to use higher ISOs or risk slower shutter speeds.
As you can see, I struggled a bit with getting the colour balance right, meaning a lot of times I ended up using monochrome, like in this photo of my mum.
After this, I returned to experimenting a bit more with my portrait photography in a more controlled environment, at home.
I started out with some natural light stuff, using the decent-sized window in my living room.
The week later, a got another new toy: a Lastolite soft box kit. Suddenly, all sorts of new portrait opportunities had opened up for me.
With it, I can create much more soft light on subjects’ faces, instead of the harsh, directed light one usually gets with an unfiltered flash. The results I’ve gotten with this box have been really quite pleasing.
Despite diffusing the light, I was still able to direct it effectively – behind me in the above shots is my living room, just unlit – and the flash was being directed such that it wasn’t lighting the background at all. It also has the added bonus of adding nice little squares of light reflected on my eyes.
Once I had the softbox, you couldn’t stop me from experimenting. Following my acquisition of it I took hundreds of self-portraits, experimenting with positioning of the light, with expressions on my face, and with post-processing techniques.
All of this shooting was done on manual, with the flash mounted on a grip and connected to the camera via a cable. I had the camera set up on a GorillaPod on a table, held the flash/softbox combination in one hand and fired the shutter using a cable remote in the other. I’d closed up the aperture to f/6.3 partly to increase the depth of field and keep more of me in focus, and partly to restrict the light coming in (the shutter tops out at 1/250th when a flash is attached, unless you switch to the high-speed setting).
I tried various different positions, and only came to really appreciate how each looked when editing the pictures later. This next one has become one of my favourites, a really lucky combination of lighting, framing and expression.
I’m also quite glad I made the choice to wear a black t-shirt, which allowed the rest of me to disappear into the background.
I also played about with fully side-on light. I quite like the end result.
Another option I had a go at was lighting more from below. The results of that were a bit different.
In many ways, portraits are like sex: something I really like doing, but usually no-one else is willing so I have to practise on myself. From time to time, however, my wife will participate.
I really like these images, but it does look a little like two floating disembodies heads having a fight.
Having got my wife to get involved, I shot her for a bit.
Unlike most of my other softbox portraits, for this image I lowered the contrast a bit, to bring out the detail in the irises of my wife’s eyes. It has brought out the background a bit, but I don’t dislike that.
As you can see, I’ve started playing about with sepia. It’s a little strong here, but in later images I’ve toned it down a bit. I find I very much like the hint of colour in an otherwise very grey picture.
Something else I’ve played about with in these images is the saturation. A lot of the as-shot photos were a touch on the yellow side, but I found that by lowering the saturation a little it fixed the problem and made for a more interesting tone.
I also played about a little with airbrushing, just because I could. It was something my iMac didn’t like as it managed to crash it a couple of times. I’m not sure why.
We also tried some dramatic uplighting.
And slightly more ‘normal’ poses.
Fortunately, my often-patient wife was happy to throw a few poses as I played about with lighting and compositions. Well, she says she was happy, but she manages to not look it in some of these images.
I really loved playing about with the softbox. So much so, that not long after this round of playing about, I nabbed myself a cheap second flashgun off of the internet (a YN-560 II, not a knockout lens by any means but it only cost £50) and an equally cheap mini diffuser, the intention being to do some more creative, controlled portraits.
New kit in hand, I tried setting up another shot, this time with my back against a large, off-white wall. I set up the big softbox on my Speedlite on the grip as before, but this time I set up the YN-560 behind me to illuminate the background, and set both flashes to be wirelessly triggered by the camera.
For some reason, it didn’t work. Whatever I tried, the second flash fired too late and so it might as well have not been firing at all. However, being relatively close to the background meant that the primary flash in the softbox lit it up a little, giving me some backlighting.
One thing I really like about these images – apart from the presence of a background giving a bit more depth to the photos – is the extra little speck of light reflected in my eyes, from the camera’s trigger flash. If you can’t see it in the in-line image above, then you can click to embiggen.
If, at this point, you’re thinking, ‘this is all well and good Rob, but I want to see this softbox, and where you were positioning it’, well then you’re in luck. I actually really like this next image. I’m thinking I’ll put it as the image on my About page.
This was the penultimate day of shooting the portraits that you’ll see in this post. Like many of the things I own, I play with them incessantly for the first few days, and then put it aside until I need it properly.
This may all seem a bit narcissistic, but I much prefer to practice on myself in private so that when I need to do it in front of other people it looks like I know what I’m doing.
My final stop on this chronological tour of the portraits I’ve taken over the last year or so is another birthday party, this time for my five-year-old niece. I packed light this time, leaving the Lastolite softbox at home and bringing a smaller selection of lenses. I ended up shooting mostly with my nifty fifty.
As if often the case at a kid’s birthday party, the conditions weren’t exactly controlled. I didn’t use my flash at all, and had to deal with the noise from shooting at high ISOs. Still, I got some shots I liked.
I like this shot, a toddler’s eye view of mummy. Don’t worry about the fact she’s wearing fairy wings.
Speaking of Alayna, and this post’s inadvertent tracking of her growing up, on this day she was recovering from a pox.
Kids party that this was, Alayna was dressed as a fairy.
My nephew George, meanwhile, was dressed like Peter Pan.
And also, it being a party for five-year-olds, there was plenty of balloons about.
Once other children arrived, however, it felt very awkward to photograph strangers’ kids (even if I wasn’t going to post them publicly anywhere), so I concentrated on photographing the adults.
There’s my wife, playing up for the camera, more than any of the kids did. Thanks, wife. Here, as an antithesis, is her father, keeping a sense of decorum.
This was another case of the natural light working in my favour, although the colour balance proved to be enough of a pain that it the image looks much better in monochrome.
We’ve now reached the final image in this set. It’s been a bit of a long slog, I know, but thank you for sticking with it. Once my portraits pool starts building up again I definitely need to publish them more often, and not let them amass in such numbers.
As is often the case, if you liked these, there are even more up on my Flickr – all 207 that made the shortlist, in fact.