My first attempt at portraits

Backlit and smiling....
Backlit and smiling….

I have never really shot portraits.  Ever.  Perhaps the pictures of our Golden Retriever are the closest I’ve done to portraits.   Most of my indoor shots with flash have always looked a little unnatural, but the Minolta Maxxum 5 seems to handle them pretty well.  But now I had to do some sort of portrait assignment, and I learned a little bit about the importance of lighting in portraits as well as all the different types of lights.

Luckily, I had a somewhat willing subject.  Normally my wife doesn’t like her picture taken, but this time she said yes.  No make up, no fancy hair styles, but she’d go along with me taking pictures – this time.  So not wanting to miss an opportunity I shot five rolls over a couple different sessions.

I checked out a set of Smith Vic lights and reflectors from Pittsburgh Filmmakers to experiment with different lighting effects:  Rembrandt lighting, butterfly lighting, backlight, rim light, etc.  Unfortunately, the first three rolls were in our kitchen, and while she said she felt like she was on a cooking show and enjoyed the shoot, in the end the photos just didn’t have enough contrast to pull an entire series for display and critique.

The other two rolls were shot in one of our guest bedrooms.  The combination of the darker tones in the room, the navy blue dress and her skin tones worked out very well.  A few of the shots I liked we couldn’t use because of reflections of the lighting equipment in the windows – something to keep an eye out for if you ever use supplemental lighting:  make sure you can’t see the lights in any reflective surfaces!

For the second shoot I used Ilford HP5+ in the Maxxum 5 and Eastman Double-X 5222 in the Canon AE-1.  Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to the flash on the Maxxum being so great that I blew out half the shots on the 5222 with the AE-1.  I had the flash set to “Program”, but if the camera isn’t in Program mode it just fires.   I realized half way through, so I was able to still get some good shots.  I had also taken most shots with both cameras, because I wanted to get some idea on how the films compared.

My favorite shots were with the AE-1/Eastman Double-X combo.  I was using a Tokina 28mm lens at f2.8 and a 1/60 second shutter.  The shots on the Ilford were higher contrast – in fact I printed them with a lower grade filter to try to match the look of 5222.  And the finer grain of the 200 speed Double-X was notable.  Even one of my classmates commented on the sharpness of the shots while I was in the darkroom.  Maybe the lens made a slight difference as well; that Tokina 28mm seems to be pretty nice.   I used the 28-90mm zoom on the Maxxum at 28mm.

I haven’t printed any of the kitchen shots, but there are a few I’ll print for our personal photos in the coming weeks.  Most of them look more like snapshots than portraits.  For now I’ll just include the contact sheets.

I enjoyed the process of working with a subject through multiple shots and trying to connect in a way that shows them relaxed and in a way that captures their personality.   You’d think it would be easy with your spouse, right?  But since she really dislikes having her picture taken, it did take a while to get her to relax.  All the best shots were from later in the session, and I had her try a few goofy things early on to try to ease any tension.

So what about you?  Have you ever done any portrait photos?  How do you get the great light without having studio lights?  Any tricks you’d like to share?  I’ve already got one request to take some shots of a family around Christmas, so I’d love to hear some suggestions.




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