Book 'em, Heisler

January 24, 2014 

While I still have a lot of room to grow as a photographer, my improvements seem to come in smaller steps instead of sneaky leaps these days. I often tell people I learned most of what I know by screwing up and trying not to goof up in the same way next time. Lately, though, I've been looking for more cerebral methods of improving as I refine my approach to portraiture.

Unfortunately, I haven't pushed myself to assist portrait photographers I admire because one of the biggest areas I could improve upon is expanding my repertoire in working with subjects. There's a lot to be learned from observing how other photographers work, but an absorbing substitute has been Gregory Heisler's 50 Portraits.

What's great about this book is that it's not bogged down in the technical aspects. Heisler reinforces the importance of technical proficiency, repeatedly mentioning the meticulous scouting, testing and preparation that goes into all of his shoots. Well, I haven't quite taken that advice to heart. Daily newspaper work at the Herald is a little too fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants for that level of preparation. I don't know what the bulk of my assignments are until the day I'm shooting them, so I've learned to roll with the punches.

Heisler had a nice little gem of advice I used last week, though, as I went with Craig Craker to photograph Tabitha and Maysun Wellsandt of Kamiakin High at basketball practice. I didn't know much about them when I arrived, except that the sisters moved from Coeur d'Alene and helped keep the Braves afloat amid early season injuries that left only six active players at one point.

Craig didn't know much more than that either. One side effect of sparse staffing means that he hadn't watched the team yet, so he wasn't even sure what positions they played. I had spent most of my shift with Mushtaq Jihad's family that day and hadn't really come up with any good jumping off points when I arrived.

Practice isn't the best environment for shooting portraits. Despite repeated requests to make sure these athletes have game uniforms, that doesn't always happen. Any time spent shooting is time the athlete isn't practicing and some coaches are more generous with time than others. If teammates are around, heckling and subject self-consciousness can become an issue too, and when you've shot these kinds of features in the Tri-Cities for six years, finding fresh angles in the same gyms and practice fields is tough.

We started by chatting with the sisters so I could get a sense of their personalities and scramble to figure something out. The bleachers were partially pulled out and I saw an opportunity to use the graphic lines and school colors. The concept I went with was that the pair figured to start the year on the bench, but were thrust into the spotlight due to the injuries.

I set up one light and started with the obligatory CYA:

A group of teammates were suddenly behind me, catcalling the Wellsandts and doing their best to razz them. To break up the awkwardness, I asked one of them to toss a ball up to the girls,

and asked them to bounce it quickly back and forth, kind of like patty cake with a basketball. I knew it was going to be a lame concept, but I was hoping for something fun or spontaneous to happen as they did it. That happened right off the bat as Tabitha threw the ball when Maysun wasn't ready:

There was another bad side effect of lots of quick firing, as my small strobes couldn't keep up with the power I had them set at. The unusably underexposed images show that it wasn't a winning idea, though:

I went to an old trick of asking them to share some embarrassing stories about each other and got a decent frame:

Then I took some of Heisler's advice, asking the girls to give me a different look each time my strobe popped. I told them not to think about what they were going to do, to just do something different. I knew most of these wouldn't be any good, but the idea is to loosen them up and try to capture a real moment within the contrived situation.

Obviously, most of these are too silly to work:

And then Maysun grabbed Tabitha and I had that real(ish) moment I was hunting for. I bumped up the contrast in post and burned the shadows a bit to emphasize my lighting concept. This is even more necessary when preparing photos for the unsubtle palette of newsprint repro:

They reset and had a more controlled hug,

but that's clearly not as strong of an image. Then they threw out a serious look,

before laughing as we wrapped:

I hope the frame we ran conveyed a feeling that those of us with siblings can empathize with. The more comfortable I get with the abilities and limits of my gear, the more I need to concentrate on really capturing some personality and offering some insight into the subjects of my portraits. I've got to keep pushing — even if the steps forward are baby ones.

Speaking of revealing portraits...

Check out Victoria Will's gorgeous tintypes from Sundance. Sure, the retro look adds a lot to the portraits, but not as much as the moments and postures captured within that aesthetic.

Here's a WTF hat trick for you. First, Overland Park, Kan., is requiring professional photographers to purchase permits to shoot in public parks. The St. Augustine Record's publisher apparently thought reader-submitted photos have been such a boon to the newspaper industry that crowd-sourced copy editing is the next logical step. You can even win a dinner for volunteering during the choice hours between 8 and 11 p.m. And, sadly, another photographer has been exposed for digital trickery. This time, it's Narciso Contreras, an AP freelancer who was part of a team of five photojournalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for their work in Syria. Once again, the manipulation is slight, and yet another head-scratcher in the trail of photojournalism ethical breaches.

Do you experience motion sickness? Then you probably shouldn't watch this amazing footage from a falcon's perspective as it hunts. A less nauseating glimpse into birds' lives involves a camera disguised as an egg.

And just for the LOLz, check out this Photoshop tutorial rap. If you like that, part 2 is pretty hilarious too.

~~~~~

kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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