CHANGE UP YOUR FACE GAME
Photographer and educator Ian Rotherham looks at the simple set-up changes that you can make to greatly vary your portrait style.
Working as a senior photography lecturer at the Universal College of Learning (UCOL) in Palmerston North, I get to pass on my enjoyment and knowledge to those who have a similar interest in the field. But the role also includes a lot of formal academic research, and, after doing that for a number of years, I thought that it was about time to set myself a personal project.
I decided to undertake the challenge of capturing a portrait a week, which eventually resulted in the book 100 Portraits: A Portrait a Week Project.
MIXING THINGS UP There were no plans for how long this project would last; the only rule was that I would do it until it was no longer fun. Facebook was an ideal platform for the project, as it was quick and easy to present work there. The pattern of posting each week kept my enthusiasm up and added enough pressure to ensure that I would post each week.
The project quickly took on a life of its own, but there were three important aspects I stuck to. First, the subjects had to cover the full spectrum: family and friends, current and past students, other photographers (always a challenge), and people who I met while out or who approached me. My personal preference with portraits is, as much as possible, to show as much strength in and respect for a person as possible. A confident engaging look is better than a forced smile.
The second aspect was the style: a mix of formal studio, location-shoot, and documentary character portraits. And the third aspect was equipment. I switched between a Hasselblad HD50, Canon 5D Mark I, II, and III; Canon 6D; Canon 700D; and Polaroid 600SE. The lighting was similarly varied and included use of studio lighting, LED lighting, speed lights, Omega reflectors, and available light. This gave me a lot of creative freedom to create very different sorts of images and styles.
ISO IS KEY A lot of consideration should be given to ISO. I have found one of the biggest things to have affected portraiture in the last 10 years to be the increase in ISO range. I commonly shoot at ISO 2000–5000, and have happily shot up to 25,600 when necessary.
However, from working with students, I have found that noise can be a problem if you don’t get a correct exposure. An ISO of 100 can look bad with noise, but if you add good metering with good light, a high ISO can be no problem.
Another benefit of high ISO is that you can shoot with lower light, meaning that your subject can relax their eyes more and you can have lower contrast or control it better. High ISO also means that artificial lighting doesn’t need to be so powerful and therefore costs less, opening up the ability for more photographers to shoot with lights. I used this approach in this project, with a third of all images shot at ISO 1000 or greater.
ESKDAR was just new to Palmy, and a photography friend connected us, as she was keen to get into modelling. Since this photo, Eskdar has gone on to work with a wide range of photographers around the country.
The lighting used was LED, with the front light a small diffused video light to give a flat but small effect on the face. The variable colour temperature meant that, when Lume Cube lights were added, I could vary the colour temperature, not unlike when using gels — warm on face (colour balanced to main light) then cooler back lights and hair light.
JOHNNY is a photogenic guy with a great beard, so I went for a classic ’60s feel, with a reference to film through the Mamiya RB67 in his hand. I used the Omega not as a reflector but to create a small window of light that falls away, and I allowed some light to spill onto the background — with the short depth of field, you can’t tell how close the background is.
The separation from the background is good, with a small amount of reflector filling in the shadow to maintain detail while still providing a loop-light style.
ROSIE is a very good Thai kick-boxer, so I shot her in her environment. The lighting used here was a speed-light flash, with a trigger from behind aimed into a silver reflector in front. The low ISO used means that the background looks darker, even though it was shot in a bright-lit gym.
The advantage of using flash inside is that you can change background brightness, either by overpowering the ambient light to darken and make the subject stand out or by using a slow sync to lighten the background.
In the end, my project was a success, with a number of remarkable portraits captured over the period. The quality of the 100 portraits varied; I have images in the book that have won awards, and others that I won’t be using in my portfolio.
ABOUT THE BOOK 100 Portraits:
A Portrait a Week Project was a finalist in the Book category at this year’s Iris Professional Photography Awards, and copies were also given to secondary schools in the region. All the profits from sales of the book have gone to the UCOL Student Hardship Fund.