Category Archives: Part 1 – People Aware

Review a Portrait Sequence

For this exercise I took a sequence of self-portraits with the Camera with a 50mm on a tripod lens at distance that resulted in head shot, I knew before I started that there was a danger that I would end up with a sequence of rather dull ‘passport photos’. To avoid this, I took a large number of pictures with perhaps over exaggerated expressions and head positions. When I was taking the pictures I imagine that those where I was more of less looking at the camera and smiling would be the most satisfying images. To a large extent this was true as can be seen from the contact sheets of the sequence below:

I did remove from the sequence pictures a where my head was excessively clipped and a few where the picture was blurred due to movement but overall the contact sheets show the pictures in the sequence they were taken.


As I had expected the pictures where I turned my face a long way to the left or right and then turned my eyes to look at the camera were probably the least successful. The most successful picture were ones where I was more or less looking at the camera and the most successful ones were when I had my shoulders turned a little so that the portrait is not simply a smiling mug shot. Five of my favourite shots are shown below.


Of these five my least favourite is the one in the middle in which I believe is too much like a mug shot with my body aligned at 90 degrees to the camera lens. My favourite shot is the one fourth from the left although I also like the one on the extreme right.

When I studied the contact sheets I was surprise how much I gravitated to the ones that had a happy smiling expression and I really could not get excited about any of those where I had tried to put on a serious or sad expression. Perhaps it is hard to get a successful picture showing a serious expression when taking a sequence of selfies because however hard I tried these days’ selfies seem to be always associated with happy events.

The main things I learnt a lot from studying these sequence of pictures; how much a relative small change in position of the head and body could make a huge difference in how I perceived the resulting picture. Also how hard is was to take a satisfactory self-portrait without a smiley expression


Focal length

To start this exercise I took two similar self-portraits at the maximum and minimum focal length of a 17-85mm zoom lens. I tried to ensure that my head was about the same size in each of the portraits and the pose was a similar as possible. I really failed on the second of these with the camera as close as it had to be for the 17mm portrait is was difficult control the pose because a small movement of my head made a huge difference to the final picture.

In choosing these extremes I wanted to show the effect of different focal lengths as clearly as possible and it is clear that the exaggerated perspective in the portrait shot at 17mm really produces an unflattering image. The picture taken at the 85mm end is much more true to life but for a Canon EOS 7d with an APS-c size sensor this focal length maybe a little long the portrait to my eyes at least is starting to show flattening of perspective


Finally, I took a similar portrait with the lens set at about 50mm, to me this is a much better portrait there appears a greater sense of depth and I believe that the distance between the subject and sitter was about right for this type of headshot. At 17mm the camera was so close to the subject that it would be distracting to many subjects while at 85mm I felt the camera was too far away for the photographer to really connect with the subject.

Focal length-3

For 35mm film and full frame digital cameras 85mm is often regard as the classic focal length for portraits in this case however I really prefer the portrait taken at 50mm. Perhaps this is because of the pose and the slightly different lighting, it was taken a few hours after the first wo when the light in the room was much brighter.  People talk about focal length equivalents when using cameras with APS-c sized sensors and taking this into account the 50mm setting would be equivalent to about 70mm on a full frame camera. Although this focal length equivalence is related to the field of view of the lens and not how perspective is distorted as image is projected onto the sensor so standing further away from the model when using a camera with an APS-c sized senor should produce a very similar picture to one standing closer using a full frame camera.

Eye Contact and Expression

It is commonly said that the eyes are the key to a successful portrait but that doesn’t mean that the subject always has to stare out of the portrait directly into the Camera lens. For this exercise I wanted to create portraits that showed the three main approaches to directing the subject’s eyes in a portrait. These are:

  • Direct eye contact – The subject looks directly into the camera lens
  • Looking out of the frame – the subject looks at something or someone outside the frame
  • Looking into the frame – the subject looks at something or someone in the frame.

Again I choose to take self-portraits for this exercise so that I could spend as much time experimenting as I liked without my subject getting bored. I’m not sure that this was always true I think you can see from some of the portraits below at times I was perhaps not concentrating as much as I should have been and there are signs of bored in some of my expressions.

The first pair of pictures is an active of contextual portrait which tries to capture my life when I am travelling on businesses. Sitting in a hotel room late at night working on my laptop with notes scribbled on a hotel pad and a rental car map of the area. In the first picture I am looking directly at the camera whereas in the second (or right-hand one) I am looking at the screen of the laptop in the bottom right of the frame. I very much prefer the second portrait because although it really captures a narrative with the scene of me somewhat focused on working. To me the image on the left although the eye contact is good the overall image really just looks contrived, as indeed it was. If I cropped both of the pictures to be just head and shoulders portraits, I think the one on the left would work much better.


The second set of pictures I took below show me lounging in a hotel room on a sofa in front of a television which is just out of the frame on the left. In the first picture I am watching the television with my eyes looking out of the frame I think this portrait works quite well because the shape of the sofa and the walls behind it generate the impression that I am looking into the room at someone or something. Again the shape of the background emphasises that I am looking at into the room directly at the camera in the middle picture. Whereas in the third picture looking over my left shoulder hints at a narrative of being disturbed by someone entering the room.


The next two portraits were taken with me sitting in the same position but with a longer focal length to achieve a head and shoulders portrait. I think I was also getting a little distracted at this time because although the eye contact is strong in the portrait on the left the expression is really one of disinterest of even irritation. I am not really sure what to make of the portrait on the right, the corner in the wall behind me makes it clear that I am looking into the room but there really is not enough context for there to be much of a narrative to workout here.


Finally, I wanted to experiment with small changes in eye direction and I created the two portraits below in the one on the left I am looking directly into the camera where as in the one of the right I was trying to focus my gaze about a foot to the right of the camera. This turned out to be much harder than I though but I think the difference is still visible in the portraits.

To me the portrait on the right epitomises a feeling of “why am I here or why am I still taking these self-portraits” The direct focus of the eye on the lens and the expression give the portrait on the left a very strong feeling. Whereas to me the portrait on the right comes across as a much softer and happier image at least in part because the eyes are not directly gazing into the lens and fixing the viewers focus onto them.


Even though the work in this exercise is not the greatest set of portraits I believe that I learnt a lot from creating it. I was really surprise looking through the large number of pictures I took how much difference small changes in my head positioning and eye direction made to the finished portraits.

An Active Portrait

This is one of a series of portraits I took during a family party I wanted to capture people interacting in as natural a way as possible. After a while people had forgotten I was taking pictures and I captured this picture of Susan deep in conversation. I really like her expression and the way she is making her point with her hands. I think the framing with her head in the right third of the frame and her had clipping the left edge as she looks past her hand of the frame at whoever she was talk to.


The one question in my mind is whether this really is an activity portrait where the subject is aware she is being photographed or whether it really should be classed as an image where the subject is unaware she is being photographed.

My view is that it counts as a portrait because I told people in advance I was going to photograph them. One thing that perhaps might have improved this image would have been to use a slower shutter speed so that some slight motion blur in her hands would add to the sense of an animated conversation. The fingers of her right hand are slightly blurring but not enough for this to standout to a casual viewer.

Experimenting with Light

For this exercise I again decided to follow the route of taking self-portraits, this allowed me to try different experiments without a sitter or model becoming bored and starting to complain. I must admit many of the experiments I made were not too successful but all the same they were valuable as a learning exercise.

The first self-portrait below was taken in very bright harsh sunlight, in fact this was taken mid-morning in Southern California on the balcony of a hotel room I was staying in. the light in California is much brighter that we usually see in the UK so this really emphasises the harsh shadows and fairly bleached out skin tone. It is certainly not a very flattering portrait but certainly one that highlights the problems of strong direct sunlight in portraiture. I remember when I was taking this picture I was trying very hard not to squint in the bright sunlight and it was quite painful to force myself to keep my eyes open and this is probably reflected in my expression. I took a series of picture in this light and thought this one was the best. Certainly from doing this I learnt that I would need to be careful if I wanted to pose someone else in this type of bright light.


The second self-portrait I took was taken at the same time of day on the same balcony as the one above but here I stood at the other end of the balcony largely in shade. Even though in this portrait my face is in total shade there are still some soft shadows and the left hand side of my face (in the picture) is visibly brighter than the right side which was close to the window. I quite like this soft lighting and I believe that this is a more successful portrait than the previous one.


My third self-portrait is another photograph I took in California although this was taken inside the hotel room using a small portable “soft box” on a Speed light mounted off the camera and slightly to the right of the frame (my left as I faced the camera). Even with the diffusion of the soft box there are still quite harsh shadows but to me it is a much better portrait that the one taken outside in the direct sunlight.


The fourth portrait below was one of the many lighting experiments I made here of I used a speed light looking up at my face from the lower right. With this lighting I was trying to get a very dramatic effect perhaps reminiscent of an old horror movie. The effect was made a little more pronounced by using a grid on the flash to concentrate the light into a fairly narrow beam so that it just picked out part of my face. The narrow beam meant that a lot of trial and error was required here to get enough of my face lit at the same time as getting reasonable framing. In the end I selected this as the one to include because I felt that having my face partially clipped by the edge of the frame added a little more drama to the lighting.


The final portrait from my session in California below used two speed lights one from quite high up on the right of the frame (my left as I looked at the camera) and one behind me, obscured by my body, pointed towards the camera. I think that this is the best of the self-portraits I took for this exercise although I could have had a happier expression. Perhaps I was getting bored by the time I took this. I really like the rim lighting effect generated by the light behind me and I like the effect of the light high and to the right. If I was taking a portrait of someone else, I would potentially us this lighting style. However, I think that a reflector to the left would soften the shadows and result in a better portrait.


I think I learnt a lot from this exercise about lighting and the different feels it can give to a portrait, portraiture has never been an area of photography that I have enjoyed and hence on in which I have little experience. I was pleased with the lighting in final portrait I think the use of the second flash behind me really makes a huge difference  compared to the third portrait in this section that only used a flash in front of me. I think that these experiments have also given me more confidence to experiment taking portraits of other people.

Thinking about locations

I have taken the pictures below over the time I have been registered for this module when I have come across locations that I thought would provide a good portrait location. I have tried to pick a collection of different types of location and for each location I discuss the type of portrait that I think it would suit and suggest the type of shot I would tak.

Stairs always provide interesting backdrops for portraits; a person sitting on the stairs, perhaps hanging over the banisters or even an action portrait as the subject jogs up or down the stairs. On an overcast day like the one when I took this shot I would probably use natural light and a largish aperture to soften the strong geometric shapes of the stairs and banister.


Graffiti can provide an interesting backdrop for the right subject; I could see a teenager in casual cloths, an artist or perhaps a rock band photographed here. With the right lighting this could produce a quite moody or threatening effect. I would probably use fill lighting to make the subject standout while keeping the background darker that in this shot. I could see either a full length or torso portrait against this background. Although with a torso shot the subject would have to be placed carefully so that the graffiti visible in the background was more than just a solid block of colour.


Framing the subject if a door way is perhaps a rather clichéd style for a portrait but I thought this dark archway in Corpus Christi college in Cambridge would be good for a full length portrait. This shot was taken in the early afternoon and at this time of day the subject could stand in the sun light and in front of the dark passage some fill flash would be necessary to soften the hard shadows that would result. On a more over cast day is would probably be possible to take the shot in natural light. This would not be a an ideal location at the time of day when there was a shadow more across the archway


I really like this field that had a wide boarder of daisies and other wild flowers and I could see this being a backdrop for a romantic soft focus portrait. The subject could stand in front of or even in the flowers for a full length shot again fill flash or more sophisticated lighting to ensure the shot was taken at an angle to get the background filled with the flowers. A torso or perhaps headshot could be taken with the subject sitting just in front of the flowers. The subject could also sit amongst the flowers which I think would give the best effect if it could be achieved with causing too much damage.


Picturing people in their environment can add interest to a portrait eitherby capturing pride of possession or as the background to an activity. I can image that the colourful background of the Aga and tiles in this picture would provide a good background for someone cooking, perhaps in chef’s white.  Although such a picture may end up looking too contrived, I would also have to remember to remove the dirty tea towel from the rail of the Aga.


A plain white wall, I always remember the quote by David Bailey “I try to simplify things by just having a white background. I don’t care about ‘composition’ or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come acrosss…”. I wouldn’t expect to be able to match Bailey’s skill but there is something attractive about the idea of a plain background that doesn’t in any way detract from the subject. The actual wall I choose was white with wood chip wall paer so there is a little texture. It was also lite by a combination of natural light from a window and a tungston bulb so it actually has a slight colour gradient


I took a self portrait using available light with a hat that has been lying around the house without being worn for many years as a prop. To me this is an ok portrait taken in rather boring lighting, it could certainly have been a lot better with more effort on the lighting.


I feel that portraits taken against a white background often look better in black and white so I made a soft fairly low contrast black and white version of this portrait which I really prefer to the colour image above. I choose this style for the portrait because I felt that the rather uniform lighting of the portrait did not lend to itself to a high contrast approach to post processing.


Portrait Scale and Setting

As long as I can remember I have always hated taking formal portraits so getting motivated to start with this module proved to be very difficult. I have vivid memories of when I first was first starting in photography people asking me to take portraits at family events and then criticising the results “I don’t look like that” etc. Perhaps those early experiences resulted in a lack of confidence in my ability t take portraits that has stayed with me over many years.

Having made several false starts I decided to take self portraits for this first exercise and setup my camera on a tripod in a corridor in my house, one problem of living in a fairly cluttered country cottage is that it was hard to find a space that was suitable to take a services of portraits from full length to cropped face with a lens of focal length 70mm which I felt would be suitable for portraiture. This choice of location is somewhat  contrary to the instructions for the exercise that the portraits should taken in an interesting  setting. While this is not important for the first two portraits it becomes significant in the whole torso and full length shots.

For the picture that crops out part of my face but leaves some of my right shoulder in the frame I also positioned myself so that there was light from a window lighting the right side of my face. I like this portrait the face, in particular, the eyes attract the viewer and the plain background does not distract from the face.


For the second portrait I choose this head and shoulders view which I don’t really like my expression looks like I am really fed up with having my picture taken and that I wish that I was doing something else. The pattern on the door is a distracting and I think pulls the viewers eyes away from the face. I could have retaken this with more light on my face and the background more out of focus. There were also better pictures in the series I took but I think that it is important to learn from mistakes and not just pretend that everything is always perfect.


The torso shot picture works better that the head and shoulders one but it looks a bit too much like a mug shot or a passport photo for my liking. Here the door in the background is less distracting than in the previous shot. I should perhaps have had my hands visible in the picture and this could have made this a more successful image.


I really don’t like the full length shot, I think it just makes me look fat and this was the best of a bad bunch! What I have certainly learnt from this exercise is that taking self-portraits is much harder than I thought it would be.


This full length shot also emphasises the importance of pose and setting to give some context to a full length portrait like this. With a strong pose it is possible to create a great full length image against a plain background. One example that I always remember is the picture below of Naomi Campbell taken by Herb Ritts that I saw in a exhibition some years ago. Although this is fashion shot to show off the boots it really illustrates how posing a model getting the right expression and lighting can make a great picture.


As I was writing up this exercise I was thinking about an exhibition of portraits by John Hedgecoe that I have recently seen and I selected the four images below that show how he used different crops and backgrounds to make statements about his sitters of bring out their personality.


The cropped portrait of Peter Sellers shows someone who really could only be a comedian. Francis Bacon stares up at the camera looking somewhat threatening with one of his pictures in the background. The author Alan Silitoe looks somewhat pensive with perhaps the painting of the nude behind him reflecting that his books were still somewhat controversial when this picture was taken. Finally the full length portrait of Henry More is really made by the silhouettes of two of his sculptures next to him.

For me this was an exercise where I feel I have learnt a lot, not least portraits are hard, think more about pose and setting.