The Portrait   

The conversation – a Portrait.

For most photographers a portrait is an artistic representation of an individual or individuals, with the goal of capturing some likeness as to who they are.

Famous American photographer, Richard Avedon carried this further when he said, “A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”

Popular American painter Jamie Wyeth wrote, “Everything I paint is a portrait, whatever the subject.”

For years most of the photography I did was portraiture, whether wedding pictures for a family, or private sessions. My opinion is that portraits are pretty narcissistic and because of that, can be much harder to do properly than many other photographic pastimes.

Make a bad landscape and no one will really care, capture a bird flying poorly and it’s no big deal; however if you give someone an unflattering photograph of themself and you have might make an enemy for life.

A portrait can be a representation of anything and doesn’t necessarily need to only be of people. Years ago my wife and I had show dogs and would regularly attend and participate in events in hopes of having the judges select our dog as best from some group; and when we did win, we would walk our dogs to a photography booth set up by a skilled dog portraitist to have a portraits taken that day when they looked so good and performed so well.

As I watched a TV show earlier this week I noticed framed pictures of the owner’s cat hanging on the wall, and I have seen all types of pet portraits in friends’ homes. I suppose a picture of a favourite or special car, motorcycle, boat or even treasured holiday snapshot, might be called a portrait.

I wonder if many photographers might agree with the painter Wyeth’s contention that, “Everything I paint (or photograph) is a portrait, whatever the subject.”

Some time ago I went for a slow drive along the winding roads high above my place in Pritchard hoping to find some cows, horses, or deer to photograph. I wanted head and shoulder compositions (or portraits), not animals in the landscape.

I leisurely drove around, passing lots of roadside deer; cows quietly chewing the cud, and finally stopped near two horses standing very close to a fence. My choice was to compose of portrait of them instead of just a pleasing documentary of two horses in a field. So I mounted a 24-85mm lens on my camera, walked through the wet grass to the fence to take their picture, and worked angle after angle for a portrait.

I suppose the words “artistic representation” and “goal of capturing some likeness” are appropriate when a photographer captures human-like qualities in animal portraits. I wanted a picture that included me, or at least inferred some conversation between the horses about me. My image is, as Avedon said, “….an opinion”.

What is a Good Photograph?

Just what defines a good photograph is, and will always be, a topic of heated discussion with serious photographers; and in my opinion, is one that is certainly worth regular examination because, simply put, a “good photograph” is what those who enjoy this medium want to make.

There are, of course, those that believe a good photograph must capture an image absolutely true to life, while others might say it’s totally about how creative the photographer is, however, if one relies on they number of “likes” they receive on social media sites a good photograph probably depends on the beauty of the subject.

When I taught photography I told my students that a good photograph includes acceptable composition, exposure, and an interesting perspective.

I also said that a good photograph makes us have a connection with, or think about the subject, and might help us understand what the photographer feels about that subject; and if successful, evokes some kind of mood, whether good or bad.

American photographer Ansel Adams said, “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” And he elaborates, “Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?”

And Adams reminds us, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

Another of my favorite scenic photographers, Elliott Porter, commented, “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis; you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”

Vogue magazine Editorial photographer Irving Penn, wrote, “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

What is a good photograph? That might only be in the “eye of the beholder”. If one is a camera club member there will be rules on how a photograph is judged. And when I graded my students’ work I was mostly interested in their knowledge.

Sometimes we see a photograph that moves or inspires us, makes us feel, think and dream. And when a photographer is able to convey that to viewers he or she has truly made a good photograph.

Flowers as Portraits   

Easter is about a month away and I expect a few readers will be getting flowers from someone or giving flowers to someone. Those flowers will be a great photo-opp.

A portrait photographer’s studio set-up usually includes a backdrop and lighting equipment. The lighting, from small, or large flash units, is controlled by an array of modifiers that can include reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes. And the backdrop is chosen not so much because it is a flat surface but because it is a background to flatter the subject seated in the foreground.

The lighting illuminates the subject and separates it from that background as well as creates depth and dimensional form.

When producing an outdoor portrait most experienced photographers will begin by placing their subject in front of a neutral background or sometimes erect a backdrop and use either flash, or reflectors, to control the light on their subject and create depth and interest.

However, if I asked those same photographers to make me a good picture of a plant they would likely just kneel down next to some pretty flower and snap the picture with little thought to background or lighting.

After years of doing just that to lazily document some plant that caught my eye, I decided that I wanted more from my images. I realized that it was the shapes and plant forms that drew me to gardens.

During my quest to make my plant and garden photos more than flat, lifeless documents, I discovered the flower photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His portraits of flowers are always posed and include the kind of dynamic lighting one would expect in photographs of beautiful people. His spectacular and thoughtful compositions of flowers, like orchids and calla lilies, convey moods that to me reveal more with each viewing.

When I photograph people I try to be both creative and flattering with my lighting, remembering that a good portrait should have lasting power. I want future generations to see a portrait of their parent or grandparent and still like it. If one gets too edgy, or trendy, the portrait will not stand the test of time and be discarded when trends change.

I have come to think the same way about photographs of plants. Flowers, of course, are so much easier to photograph than people, especially potted plants. Select a good location, turn the pot until the pose looks good and add light. Plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

Photographing a plant in the garden or in a pot should be more than quickly pointing a camera at that flower in a garden or a windowsill and releasing the shutter.

Put that boring iPhone away, and take the time to make it more than just a repetitive, unimaginative record. Don’t be in a rush; take time to develop a plan, don’t take the lighting for granted, work with it, and above all, be creative.







Movies about Photography              


This past week my wife commented to some evening guests that I always have something to say about any camera that one appears in a TV show.

Yes, I do that. I can tell her I am sorry for interrupting movies she is watching, but I’ll just do it again the next time I see an actor with a camera.

I enjoy watching movies about photographers. I guess the number one classic was “Blow Up” in 1966, staring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings. The plot was about a fashion photographer that takes some casual shots of people while he walks through a park. However, when he blows up his prints he realizes he’s also photographed a murder. It is a worthwhile “time period” movie to watch if one is interested in what was “hip” in 1966 and likes symbolism.

I have seen it several times and enjoy critiquing the photography, and the cumbersome way the lead actor uses his Nikon. The stylish photographer kept enlarging, cropping, and enlarging the prints from his 35mm camera. Impossibly, the prints were always sharp and without any grain.

Another of my favourites was an awkward movie called “Nights in White Satin”. The story line was weak, but one has to watch a movie with a title and lead song by the Moody Blues. The music throughout was pretty good, and made up for the simplistic story revolving around a photographer who gets involved with a homeless woman.

The photographer tooled around on a Harley Davidson, used a Leica rangefinder, and, in spite of hurriedly taking pictures in dimly lit flophouses and back alleys the resulting pictures were always perfectly exposed with studio lighting. Of course, the woman living on the street was beautiful, well washed, and used makeup.

The third and last movie I’ll mention was packed with delightful clichés. It would be forgetful if not for those.

It was a made-for-TV British show entitled “Midsomer Murders”. The director sets his main characters, a couple of detectives, investigating the murders of camera club members.

The members were at odds over which technology is better, film or digital. The club members who used film had old Rolleiflexes, Leicas, and wooden 4×5 cameras, and all wore those campy, khaki-coloured, photography vests with all the pockets we occasionally see from time to time. The club members that preferred digital DSLRs had electronic flashes, and wore black leather jackets with black pants.

The directors must have had fun searching out every photo cliché imaginable, and, those of us old enough to remember film processing will laugh at the darkroom scene, where one fellow developed and printed colour film in a brightly lit room with what could only have been black and white chemicals in a tray.

I am a sucker for any movie or TV show that involves photography. They usually are poorly done, and I am sure I ruin it for anyone unfortunate enough to be in the same room because I am so vocal about everything photographic.

I do have a great time and can’t resist outbursts pointing out everything right or wrong (gosh, my wife is so patient) however, I expect some readers may share my enthusiasm and I am sure are thinking of movies with cameras that they critiqued out loud.

I wonder if there is a group called Photography Movie Addicts Anonymous?

Roadside Photography in February   





February is finally done. Gosh, that month always seems so darn long. Yes, I know it is the shortest month in actual days, but it hasn’t seemed that way for me. This past February was a bleak, grey, and lifeless time that one must endure. And try as I did during the past few weeks since my Kelowna beach walk, I just couldn’t garner the energy to wander the frozen landscape with my camera. However, when the sun finally made an unusual appearance on the last day of the month it didn’t take much coaxing to get me out.

All my wife had to say was, “Its nice out, let’s take a drive.” That sounded good to me. It’s always relaxing to take a drive around our rural neighbourhood. There still is a few feet of snow covering everything but the roads were clear.

I selected my 70-200mm lens. When I use one of my wide-angle lenses I am looking over the landscape, with a telephoto I get to look into it.

Mid-week is a perfect time to drive around, we had the roads to ourselves and I could drive slowly, stop to look around, or back up and get out just about any location to take a picture.

If it were just me, I would have headed down to the river. I like prowling the riverbank, but as we got into the car my wife said, “I don’t want to go down to the river.” I guess she didn’t want me taking chances tromping on the not-so-stable ice along the edge of the river.

My term for drive-around kind of picture taking is, “roadside photography”. The good thing about driving and looking for things to photograph is you cover a lot of distance and see a lot of stuff. The bad thing about driving around is once you are in motion it’s hard to stop. I am sure that without my wife reminding me, and at times, demanding I stop I’d just motor by many good subjects.

I don’t like to shoot from inside my car. A quick search on the Internet will bring up article after article explaining how easy it for those that don’t want to get out of their car to take pictures.

I can’t get comfortable. Everything is in the way and it’s hard to turn around with a steering wheel restricting my movements.

I prefer to stop, get out, close the car door, get my camera off the back seat, close that door, look at my subject for a while, and think about how I want to take the picture (remember “Previsualization” from my last article) then release the shutter.

Nevertheless, I expect I will be a roadside photographer for years to come. And I’ll keep getting in and out of my car and depending on my wife, Linda, to keep reminding me to stop.

I think sitting in the back seat would be a better and roomier place to take pictures from. My long-range plan is to have my granddaughters to drive me around. I mentioned this to the oldest at her last birthday, but I’ll have to wait a while because she’s only ten and can’t reach the pedals yet.