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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

If photographers from Mathew Brady to Cartier-Bresson produced gorgeous portraits by available light, why is it that so many portraits today, made with the latest in electronic flash and computer assistance, look so dreadful?

Whenever I teach a seminar on portraiture I always ask to see students' previous work. More often than not, I see two things:

1. A cluttered background that creates a visual cacophony that diminishes the portrait, and
2. Harsh, unflattering direct flash that turns any portrait into a mediocre point n' shoot passport picture.

This week and next I'll discuss a few easy techniques that can vastly improve your portraiture without breaking your budget. A couple of the techniques I'll describe do involve tools that can be pricey, but their effects can be duplicated with mundane materials you probably already have.

Take a look at the accompanying family portrait of a couple whose wedding Judy and I shot several years ago. It works on a number of levels. First, there are great expressions on everyone, including the baby-a product not only of my wife's superb timing, but also of my jumping up and down behind her to get the baby's attention.

Second, there is absolutely nothing in the background to take away from the faces-a result of posing the trio against gray seamless paper.

Third, the lighting is uniform and pleasant, almost as if the family were lit by gentle windowlight. In this case, the windowlight is electronic: studio strobelight diffused through a softbox that has been suspended on a lightstand above and slightly to the left of the subjects.

All these elements combine to create a first-rate portrait. But take a look at the setup shot and you'll see a fourth element that is just as important as all the others.

Note that mom, dad (and baby, obviously) are all of different heights, but that Judy has made sure that in the formal portrait their heads are fairly close to each other to create more intimacy and therefore a better picture. Here, this has meant that mom stand while dad sits on a stool. He holds the baby, but in order to get the little guy up at the right level, the baby also is propped up on a pillow while in his father's lap.

None of the props (stool, pillow, lightstands) is visible in the final shot. The portrait has the wonderful immediacy of a spontaneous moment caught on film. (But we all know better.)

To get a similar look in your own work without resorting to seamless paper, see if you can work against a smooth wall, even if it means removing a picture or mirror. If you have enough room, move your subjects away from the wall. This will help throw the wall out of focus, minimizing any blemishes or imperfections in the wallboard or plaster.

Such a move also will minimize, if not downright eliminate, harsh shadows from your strobe unit that can create the dark outline on the background that fairly screams "flash picture!"

To further soften your flash light without resorting to a softbox, you might try firing your portable flash unit through a diffusion medium as mundane as a white bedsheet suspended from two light poles or other means.

In this picture, because there are three subjects, we wanted the light to be fairly uniform. For this reason, I also set up a second strobelight to the right of the family. However, this light was pointed, not at them, but at the ceiling, and set to about one-third the power of the main light in the softbox. The effect was simply to open up the shadows to make the portrait light more uniform. [A similar effect can be achieved without resorting to a second light by placing a reflector opposite your main light, to kick light back at your subjects. What kind of reflector? Over the years I've used expensive collapsible ones, as well as large pieces of scrap white cardboard-to almost the same effect.]

Reflectors can be your and your subject's friend in a number of ways. In simple lighting setups involving, say, one softbox slightly above your subject, a reflector held directly below your subject's face can kick light back up into your subject's face, effectively eliminating shadows under the eyes as well as the deleterious effect of bags or crow's feet. It's no wonder that this is a standard technique for fashion photography.

Next week, I'll discuss another technique that you probably would not want to use on your average high fashion model. But it does create a dramatic effect. And it requires nothing more than a tiny portable strobe-and a toilet paper tube.

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

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Judith Goodman

Judith Goodman

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