Freeing and Damning

March 18, 2010 

I’ve had mixed results in my quest to stop sucking at portraits.. The freedom in these assignments can be both blessing and curse. In pretty much every other aspect of this job, you deal with what you have. Bad lighting, messy backgrounds and camera shy subjects are just a few of the daily hurdles we encounter. People and animals can act and move unpredictably, and things have a way of not working out as you had hoped.

A messy background for a news story must either be avoided or covered up by your subjects. Don’t like where that water bottle is sitting? Too bad, you can’t move it. The angle you would like to photograph from means your subjects are backlit? Well, then you’re going to have to use fill-flash, silhouette them or expose for the shadows.

We face many of these same problems on portrait assignments, but we also have much more control. In a portrait, you can move that bottle out of there and reposition your subjects to your liking. It’s both freeing and damning, however, because there’s really no excuse to have a distracting background element or poor lighting.

I am, however, a slave to overthinking, overanalyzing and excuse making, so I’ll give it a whirl.

Last December, Franklin County sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Gayda retired after nearly 28 years to battle brain cancer. We weren’t able to link up until the late afternoon, but I found out his post-retirement plan was to expand his wife Sheryl and his alpaca operation. The fleeting blue hour ambient light was fading fast, so we headed into the pen. Shoots like this are a good example of how this job is much more than just pushing a button. As I clutched a strobe off-camera with a piece of aluminum foil to diffuse the light, I also had to keep my exposure in mind as the lighting dimmed. On top of that, we had to keep moving, calmly, to try and position him in a place where I could work in the semi-skittish alpacas. While doing this, I had to keep adjusting my composition as I tried to talk to him in an effort to create an engaging and storytelling image.

I liked this one:

but it seemed too silly for a story about a man battling brain cancer. After conferring with senior photographer Paul T. Erickson, we settled on this shot for publication:

I like the lighting on Sgt. Gayda, but I hadn’t adequately adjusted my shutter speed to properly expose the background, there’s no connection between Sgt. Gayda and his alpacas, and a seemingly dubious connection between him and the viewer. The photo has the basic informative elements — uniform, badge, alpacas — but none of the subtle emotional or visceral qualities that make a great portrait.

Ditto that a week later when I went to shoot a portrait of Elinor and Andrew Woehler with their surviving dog amidst a furious debate over breed-specific regulations for owners of dogs deemed “potentially dangerous.”

Andrew Woehler spoke to the Richland City Council asking members to adopt breed-specific regulations similar to those in Pasco and Kennewick after a fight erupted between their two mini dachshunds and a boxer-lab mix on a public path. Their dog, Pumpkin, on the laptop, was killed, and Andrew Woehler’s wife Elinor was bitten. The other dog owner disputes their version of what happened.

It’s not the most subtle concept, but I hope it reads well. Exposing for the bright screen in memory of Pumpkin meant Elinor and Willow, the surviving dog, were pretty underexposed. If I was smart, I would have had them dim the screen on the laptop, but I was constantly shifting around to try and keep Elinor and Willow in the dark parts of the window’s reflection so they would even be visible as I tried to keep Andrew engaged. Lighting wise, Andrew could use a little supplemental light on his face, but I didn’t want to deal with the added headache of finagling a strobe. I should have had him turn is head slightly toward the light, however.

Still, I liked it better than the boring CYA shot I got:

More recently, I photographed five of the Tri-City Americans’ undrafted players who have been strong contributors to the team.

Working with that many people without a good portable light kit can be challenging. I do occasionally pack up our studio set for shoots, but that’s cumbersome and not always practical — especially in moist settings or on ice. I decided to try a simple setup I used when I photographed nine Richland baseball players last year for a feature about their long journey from Little League to competing for state titles:

During the portrait session, I asked them for embarrassing stories from their countless road trips together to spur some uncanned expressions. And though these hockey players hadn’t known each other nearly as long, I figured the technique would still work since they spend so much time together. I started by asking who was worst to room with on the road, and though they quickly agreed on Brendan Shinnimin, their body language and expressions were stiff and they didn’t elaborate despite further probing.

Most of my following inquiries were met with the same begrudging answers. My attempt to get them to trash talk backfired, which, compounded with a photo session that Johnny Lazo said was “out of (their) element,” made for some pretty boring pictures. I had them sitting in the penalty box, so I also had to shift around to keep the posts that hold up the glass from sticking out of their heads. Even with sports reporter Annie Fowler, who covers the Ams, there to assist me, I could not get them to loosen up. Here’s the best of the take:

I should have remembered the hilarious Canadian mockumentary Trailer Park Boys and thrown around a few Rickyisms, but after about 10 minutes I gave up and had them set up in front of the net. Not wanting or possessing the necessary lighting equipment to create a dramatic sportrait, I asked who were the two fastest skaters and had them scrape to a halt next to the other three, spraying them with snow. The first run by Mason Wilgosh and Johnny Lazo ended up blasting the other three in the face:

Where was this playfulness five mintues ago?

Unfortunately, this resulted in some funny, but inappropriate facial expressions:

It took several runs for them to get their timing down before I was reasonably happy with this one that ran in the paper:

The ads are an eyesore and the background is full of annoying reflections, the arrangement of pucks on the ice looks goofy and Mason’s snow is mostly dissipated in this moment. Their practice was starting soon, however, and this was feeling like it was about as good as it was going to get. I felt a combination of defeat and relief because while I knew I and other photographers would frown at all the shortcomings in this photo, it would probably be a crowd pleaser, which was confirmed when I came across this post by blogger Dave Shultz.

Looking back at my work, one of my favorite portraits I shot was also one of the simplest. It helped that Laurel Piippo’s home had some nice colors and a big window for me to work with, but really, keeping things simple let me concentrate on working with her instead of juggling that with everything else:

I wish I would have moved that chair out of the way and figured out a way to keep that bright blue spot from the background, but this is one photo I’m proud of. There’s no shortage of portrait assignments, and Chuck Jones’ famous quote about drawing that applies to anything creative is always in the back of my mind.

You've got a million bad drawings in you; you better get started.

Here’s hoping I’m at least in six figures by now.

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