Background and 'round

May 31, 2013 

While I used to consider portraits one of my biggest weaknesses as a photographer, it's turned into one of my strengths over the last couple years. I've become very comfortable with my portable light kit, know its limitations and can usually get a desired look without much fumbling around. But as this profession has shown me repeatedly, the more you progress, the more you realize you have to improve.

Recently, I've been making the most basic of mistakes and letting the backgrounds of my portraits mess things up. Sometimes it's a matter of losing focus as the shoot goes on, like when I photographed Kennewick pitchers Clayten Ayres and Jarrod Molnaa a few weeks ago.

I stuck both on the mound and used the stadium lights as symmetrical scene setters:

There's a bit too much depth of field, perhaps, but I worked a little tighter during the after-practice session to go with simple, clean sky:

We ended up switching Jarrod's pose a bit, which he and I liked better and called it good:

Too bad Clayten's hand is overlapping the left light and the scoreboard is suddenly jammed into Jarrod's leg. Some simple repositioning could have fixed it and I should have shot a version with the clean sky. I still liked the moment and pose best, so we ran that, warts and all.

Time was the issue as I went to photograph Kennewick soccer's impressive defensive unit. The best time was apparently right before a playoff game for some reason and I knew I had to work quickly. Despite lots of repositioning and angle adjustments on my part, I just couldn't find a clean way to shoot my concept:

The idea was to shoot low and wide to make the group appear to dwarf the goal, but Lampson Stadium's various poles made for a challenging background and I opted to go with a pole kind of sticking out of goalie Jose Rodriguez's head instead of potentially looking like the base of the goalpost sticking up Noe Diaz's backside.

Scooting back and zooming in cleaned it up, but made for a less dramatic image:

The other goal was even worse as sponsors' signs dominated behind it, so I went with the first. Part of the problem was the need to work really quickly to let the players get back to preparing for the game.

A couple weeks later, I had the chance to photograph Hanford goalie Jacob Thiel after practice, which not only gave me more time, but the chance to position the goal like I wanted.

It gave me the option for clean skies:

I also tried to play off his Spiderman jersey without getting too hokey, but not really pulling that off:

I went with this shot after talking with Kevin Anthony about our options and hope it gives off a bit of a heroic vibe amid the goal's geometry while throwing in the Hanford "H":

Having some time to work is always preferable, and I was happy with this portrait of Southridge's dynamic duo of Sofia Morrison and Sarah Morgan:

It's one of the more complex lighting setups here, but still pretty simple, using three lights to overpower the drab Tri-Cities Court Club lighting and minimize the basic background while adding a dramatic punch:

I even spent some time working toward something fun, but Sofia wasn't totally comfortable rocking out her racquet, so we scrapped this idea pretty quickly:

It's too bad because I think playing off that rock star motif would have fit the story pretty well. I don't blame her for being self-conscious with a couple dozen other tennis players on every other court in the place, though.

With Richland triple-threat Shanice Lakes, I purposely picked a more secluded spot after seeing a bit of shyness when we met at the beginning of practice. This time, I stuck her in shade and mostly blew out the background:

The background suffers from all the other randomly scattered people, though, and I didn't take advantage our lack of gawkers by pushing for a shot that revealed a little more of her personality.

Seclusion, time to work and a flash of inspiration helped pull this portrait of science whiz Swetha Shutthanandan together:

The 15-year-old made her own solar cells in her garage and qualified for an international science fair. I think I worked well with a potentially disastrous background setup, popping a flash from outside the window to fake some sunlight for the story:

But having time to work is meaningless if you don't make the most of that opportunity. Elisa Grandemange's picturesque backyard view of Badger Mountain suffered from some unfortunate power lines:

It was easy enough to crop that out as I worked the simple setups for the story about how years of ballet have translated well to throwing discus and javelin:

I really overpowered the ambient light to try and kill more of the background and allow me to freeze the action better as Elisa did a ballet-esque leap:

The shot really needs a cleaner background and a nice clean sky with clouds would have fit perfectly. Those power lines boxed me in from that spot, but I could have asked to move to a new location, maybe down the street, to give me something better to work with.

You learn early as a photojournalist to make the best of your situation and sometimes it's hard to break from that mentality. And as I keep trying to move forward with my portraits, it's important to keep building up from the background.

Speaking of moving forward...

The Chicago Sun-Times announced that it is laying off its photo staff in favor of reporters shooting videos with their smartphones. Included in the bloodletting is legendary photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White. It's a bold move that will clearly save the industry because readers demand videos produced by people with little training who are forced into doubling their duties after seeing numerous colleagues get a boot up their asses as a reward for years of hard work.

If my previous statement proves more factual than facetious, then my years of waiting tables may become my most valuable college training.

You may remember Jon Sall's unceremonious firing from a few weeks ago after he, as head of the video department, was asked to dig his own grave by training reporters on how to shoot smartphone videos. Looks like it was a mass grave.

Photoshelter's Allen Murabayashi has an interesting take on how the Internet has killed photojournalism. It's a deceptively simplistic headline and the article delves much deeper than the usually rote statement that people like to make about the newspaper industry's woes. The Chicago Tribune's Scott Strazzante offers his thoughts about the move, the industry and photojournalists' place in the newsroom, and fellow Tribune photojournalist Alex Garcia shares his perspective as well.

In more news about how newspaper photos are worthless, learn how John Rogers Photo Archive is making bank off of buying up archives.

And for some interesting reading and viewing, check out these long exposures of gunfire during the Vietnam War and a little bit about how much goes into the war reporting from Afghanistan.

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