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Nasty Noon De-light

High noon light is the bane of most photographers' existences. While the hard overhead light and deep shadows can yield some interesting photos, portraits at this time are especially difficult to handle. The angle of light creates unflattering shadows on the subject, and popping a little flash is the easiest way to handle it.

Before I put together my travel light kit, the only way I could add this flash was by holding the strobe off to the side with a three-foot cord, awkwardly working the camera with one hand while trying to position the light in a way that still gives the subject some shape. If a reporter was with me, I'd recruit him or her to hold the light.

I'd also try to soften the light some by bouncing it off a piece of foil I wrapped around the strobe, but sometimes the bright ambient light was too strong for that. Even with the foil, the light is pretty harsh.

The other problem with this setup is how it affects your composition options. Since you're limited by the length of your arm and the cord, the subject ends up being pretty much the same distance from you most of the time. If you're shooting solo, it's also much easier to have the light at camera left since trying to reach over your lens with your left hand doesn't get it very far from directly blasting your subject with bad light.

I dug up a few old shots from the year or so before my new lights to show how homogeneous my noon portraits were:

I don't think they're all terrible, and this discussion shouldn't be seen as an indictment on the standard environmental portrait setup. It is nice to have other options, though, like when I met Barbara Cunningham at the Sails Outlet for Safe Harbor Crisis Nursery for a story about illegal dumping at the charitable thrift store.

I'd photographed the same story back in August 2009 in mid-day sun. The clunky headache that time was a heavy-duty drafting table that had been turned into a sign. I used the shade of the awning, exposed for the bright highlights of the "Please No Dumping" sign and probably used the old strobe with foil technique on volunteers Judy Blakely, left, and Carol Schneidmiller. This is what it looked like straight out of the camera:

The subjects are too much for that one flash to handle, but it got me close enough to brighten them in post production. This time around, I wanted to do better. The hook was that somebody had left a freezer full of rancid old food along with a bunch of other garbage. The store is pretty much run by retired women and while dumping is an ongoing problem for them, this was a new low.

I got up on a ladder and set up a couple of lights to try and photograph Barbara and the funky freezer together, but the angle of the sun made it hard to incorporate the elements I wanted without including the shadows of myself and my equipment, and I couldn't get high enough to really show the filth:

Here's one without any flash to show you how nasty these shadows are for portraiture:

I decided to shoot two photos, going with a wider take on the portrait to try and dwarf Barbara with all the garbage. I let the natural light illuminate the mattress, but exposed for highlights to keep them from getting too bright, hoping to give the image an appropriate moodiness without relying on Barbara folding her arms and frowning at the camera. After some futzing around with my lights and composition, I settled into this framing, which let me include Sails' warning sign:

Then I added another light to bring some attention to the freezer for the final frame,

before getting a straight-down shot of the filth, which smelled bad enough that Barbara, who said she lost her sense of smell a while back, even caught a whiff:

I've gotten pretty good about knowing how strong my lights are to quickly figure out my exposure. These shots are pretty much straight out of the camera besides some dust spot cleaning and sharpening. What I apparently need to keep working on is controlling that light. You can see that third fridge light spilling carelessly onto the wall behind Barbara if you compare the two photos.

It's not just about trying to create interesting light during a tough time of day, however, and I've been trying to use lighting to try and convey a mood that helps tell the story in a more subtle way. If you've followed my work, you'll know subtlety, like portraiture, isn't my strength. And while I used to loathe shooting environmental portraits, I've relished my recent opportunities.

This excerpt of an interview with Melissa Golden on the fantastic blog The Image Deconstructed resonated with me since my opinion of portraiture has started to go this route:

I got my start in newspapers, where "portrait" was kind of a dirty word. If you had to make a portrait of someone, it meant you couldn’t manage to get them in action, and there were no real acceptable excuses. In newspapers, I got the strong impression early on that portraits were the last resort of the lazy/incompetent photographer. There are exceptions, like a pre-conceived portrait series, but I tried to never shoot a portrait for an assignment when an action shot was within the remote realm of possibility.

Nowadays, I shoot primarily for magazines and at least 80 percent of my assignment work is portraiture. It was extremely counterintuitive at first — I didn’t feel comfortable directing. It felt downright unethical to tell a subject where to stand or how to look. Slowly, I began to realize that the very nature of portraits allows me to control elements that had previously been out of my hands as a news photographer. I was no longer limited to the confines of attempting to capture what was unfolding before me. I could directly craft the image to tell the story. I became increasingly hands-on, but never felt truly comfortable with the images I took that were purely direction. I felt they said more about me than my subject.

Over time, I learned that there is an exquisite middle ground — the spontaneous moment within the setup. That is what I aim for in every single one of my portrait sessions. I approach each subject differently to achieve this. Sometimes I’ll bark orders. Other times, I’ll have a friendly conversation and find common ground to create a connection. Sometimes, I don’t say a word, I just shoot and let the silence get awkward and uncomfortable until the subject can’t stand it. It really is different with everyone and I try to feel out my approach within the first minute of meeting the subject. With Rangel, I put him through the paces and just kept shooting. No one can smile for five minutes straight — the muscles start to give out after a while.

I especially liked the last bit about Melissa's approach to interacting with her subjects. I'm generally most comfortable working in situations where a light, friendly and humorous touch is needed, but that's obviously not always appropriate.

Maybe what's most daunting about shooting portraits is that you have total control of the situation and therefore have zero excuses when the photo doesn't work. While I never really felt dirty directing people in portrait setups, I did and sometimes still feel a little lost in that process. I clearly still have some work to do on finessing my control of lighting, but my increasing comfort with the techniques should allow me to devote more of my limited brain power to improving the heart of my portraits.

Even at high noon.

Speaking of light...

Artist Binh Danh utilizes photosynthesis to "print" images onto leaves by placing a negative against a leaf in a glass assembly and letting the sun bake in the photo.

There's a great interview with Damon Winter and Marcus Yam over at Lens following their Emmy win in the "New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming" category for current news. It's an interesting discussion about the changing nature of visual journalism with the veteran badass (Winter) and young stud (Yam), who touch on the the balance between still and moving pictures in the Times' multimedia piece "A Year at War." Winter, you may also remember, won for his Hipstamatic photos in "A Grunt's Life," which was part of "A Year at War."

Lens also has a fun post about Tony Cenicola's sexy chicken shoot.


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