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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

SIMPLE (BUT DRAMATIC) PORTRAITS

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Often the most dramatic portraiture is not the most flattering.

One look at today's cutting edge magazines and you'll see any number of arresting photographic portraits that go far beyond the standard, cookie cutter studio shot -- whose basic setup often involves a softbox for the mainlight, a hairlight, and perhaps a light aimed at the seamless backdrop to create a halo-like glow around the subject's shoulders.

While there's nothing wrong with this setup, I do find it pretty boring. Pleasing, but boring.

Take photo #1, of my friend Jim. It's a fairly straightforward location portrait, made with only one light, diffused in a softbox to approximate window light. The only modification I've added is a reflector opposite the flash to bounce some light back at Jim to fill in the shadows on the right side of his face.

Note: When photographing subjects with glasses, the light often has to be placed either well to the side or high above, to eliminate reflections. Otherwise your subject-even a rugged guy like Jim-can wind up looking like Little Orphan Annie.

But what if you wanted to try something different, more edgy?

This is a trick I learned from Washington photographer Tom Wolff during a great workshop years ago at Photoworks at Glen Echo Park. Using what arguably might be the most mundane photo prop of all-a simple toilet paper tube--you can turn any portable flash unit into a directed spotlight that can create really dramatic shadows and, I think, a bizarre and wonderful portrait.

Photo #2 shows my wife and partner, Judy, aiming the light at Jim from below as I snap the picture. The flash is simply a workhorse Vivitar 283, in this case powered by a Lumedyne battery pack in Judy's right hand. The flash is connected to my camera by a long PC cord so that it will be triggered when I release the shutter. I have attached the paper tube to the front of the 283 with black gaffer's tape.

The final result, in photo #3, shows how the directed light has created a punchy, contrasty image, with far more snap than photo #1. In addition, since Jim is sitting in front of a gray seamless backdrop, the shadows created by the flash make a wonderful pattern behind him.

Granted, Jim is having fun during all of this and is flashing a big smile. But think back to all those classic black-and-white monster movies we used to love. Can't you see Boris Karloff in the same setup, only without the flannel shirt and glasses?

Incidentally, the sinister nature of this light is accentuated by the fact that it comes from below the subject. (This seems to be a universal reaction to such light placement. We are used to seeing light normally from above, i.e., from the sun. The opposite immediately seems somehow "wrong" or frightening.)

Obviously, though, the light can be held wherever you like. Held high above and to the side, you can mimic the effect of a streetlight at night. From the side: the look of approaching car headlights.

Amazing what you can do with a toilet paper tube and one of the cheapest flash units on the planet.

When trying this technique, you may want to experiment with your exposure. I have to admit, being a professional, with all a pro's expensive toys, I was able to gauge flash output with a handheld flash meter, then confirm the reading by making a Polaroid picture using a special Polaroid back on my Hasselblad. But since all you really are doing is shooting by direct flash (albeit direct flash targeted precisely), the little exposure guides on the side of the flash unit should work just fine. And if you are shooting negative film, either color or black-and-white, there usually is a stop or two of wiggle room built into the film anyway.

During Tom Wolff's workshop, he also demonstrated a variation on the paper tube theme that can create an even more atmospheric image. When I made photo #3 of Jim, I was shooting at a fairly high shutter speed (probably 1/60 of a second or better). But shooting at a much longer shutter speed-say a full second, especially if your camera is handheld-you can create cool shadow outlines of your subject, all the while your subject appears tack sharp.

This small photographic miracle is simply the result of the flash acting in effect like a second, very high speed shutter (the duration of the average flash unit's output is much faster than the highest shutter speed on most cameras). Thus shooting "drag flash"-combining flash with a slow shutter speed-creates two pictures in one: a sharp flash image (usually your subject) and a soft background.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6
Surge Protection-or Practicing Safe Pix
The Plastic Nikon
The Incredible Shrinking Overhead
Simplified Location Portraiture


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