Eliminating visual clutter for better portraits

Last week I wrote about using lighting to help simplify a background.  Today I want to take a step back and simplify things.  Sure, learning to light a composition is very important but sometimes elevating a portrait can be as simple as deciding what not to include in the frame.  In this lesson (with the help of my faithful assistant Spring)  I’ll show you how little changes can make a big difference for your portraits.

Visually cluttered picture

Visually cluttered picture

So take a look at the above picture of Spring.  What do you see?  An eager dog of course but also some blankets, a kitchen with drying dishes, the mail, a plant, the back yard, etc.  This leads to two questions.  What is the important part of the picture?  And what can I do to put the viewer’s focus on that subject?  The answers are (assuming you are not just interested in what my home looks like), Spring, and get rid of all of the non-essential parts of the composition.  Seems obvious, right?  Well, it might be but how often have you just walked up to a beautiful scene, lifted your camera, and pressed the button?  Sometimes turning to one side or the other and taking a few steps can have a huge impact on your composition.

M_Kloth_Spring_wall_background_8020

In this portrait we have the exact same super cute model photographed in the same room with the same (más o menos) lighting, yet aside from an out of focus brick wall, there is nothing else to see.  This immediately serves to bring the viewers’ eyes to the focal point of the portrait – Spring’s face and eyes.

Now I know what you’re thinking, that’s all fine and well if you have an empty wall that you could use as a background, but let’s face it, some scenes are going to be busy no matter what direction you turn.  And that’s a good point – so then you have to work a bit to isolate your model.  Last week I discussed how you could overpower the light on the background.  This week’s solution is even more straight forward – just find something to cover it up.

M_Kloth_Spring_studio_8027

For this final portrait, I put Spring on a piece of white paper which eliminates all distractions (and contextual location clues).  If you’ve been following my work with adoptable animals for a while, you know that white seamless background paper is often my go-to solution for photographing shelter critters.  That’s for good reason – some of the rooms I worked in were so full of stuff over the years that without a way to hide the background, a puppy portrait would turn into a Where’s Waldo picture.

So before you make that next portrait, think about the background and how it might work for or against your goals for the image.  Oh, and if your model is of the canine persuasion, don’t forget your treats.

 

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Anatomy of a shot – cat portrait using a flash or two

Alice the cat

Alice the cat

This week I’m starting off my photo tip series discussing just one of the elements that went into making this photo (I don’t want to overwhelm you on my first lesson) but it’s an important place to start.  The basic idea here is one that is essential for EVERY photographer – using your lighting to focus the viewer’s attention exactly where you want it in the photo.

Alice was photographed in a mixed lighting room in a walk in ‘cat condo’.  That is, the fluorescent lights were on and there was bright sunlight coming in through the window (though not directly lighting her) – this is what we call the ‘ambient light’.  There were other cats in the condo, the walls of the cage were barred (it is an animal shelter after all), and there was assorted clutter throughout (food and water bowls, kitty litter, blankets, toys, etc.) – basically there was a lot that I didn’t want in the picture.  If you’ve ever made someone’s portrait indoors in a room with windows, with the overhead lights on, and with lots of things in the background then you’ll have a pretty good idea about what the ambient light and background would do for this kind of portrait.  It would all be fine for making a record of the scene but it might be kind of ho hum portrait.  One of the easiest ways to make your model stand out in an image is to remove distracting background elements from the frame.  Today I’m going to talk about achieving this isolation using flashes to light the portrait.  To be sure, there are ways to make an amazing portrait using ambient light but that’s a topic for another day.

The dark background here is a result of using a flash (two actually, but one would do the trick).  This happens because flash outputs are very bright but short lasting.  This allows the camera to use a fast (relatively) shutter speed because the bright light properly illuminates the model but it isn’t strong enough to light the background (there’s physics involved here – it’s what is referred to as the inverse square law) hence a properly lit model with a dark background.  This is a great way to make your model stand out in what might otherwise be a distracting background.

Since the primary on camera flash would be enough to properly light the portrait, the question remains, why complicate things with another flash?  Well, that comes down to aesthetics.  One of the things that you can do to add interest to a portrait is to incorporate areas of light and shadow (instead of just lighting everything straight on).  This allows the viewer to better see things like texture (great for furred subjects) but it is also something that we’ve been conditioned to appreciate in our art for centuries.  One of the masters of using this technique of light and shadow was the painter Rembrandt van Rijn.

Old Man with a Black Hat and Gorget http://www.rembrandtpainting.net, accessed 7/17/14

 

So give your flash a try.  It might not be the perfect solution for every shot but it definitely has its place.  Most importantly have some fun experimenting!

 

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San Xavier del Bac

San Xavier del Bac (2011)

San Xavier del Bac (2011)

 

It’s Good Friday!

If you’ve never visited San Xavier del Bac before, you might want to add it to your Easter weekend plans (though sadly they have some scaffolding up in front of the building now to make some needed repairs).

The mission was founded in 1692 and the church was built between 1783 and 1797.  According to their website, it is ‘the oldest intact European structure in Arizona’ and it still functions as an active Catholic parish.

It’s not hard to understand why they call it the ‘White Dove of the Desert’ and while it looks impressive from the parking lot, you owe it to yourself to see the inside of the church.  The original artwork was recently restored to it’s original glory.

A restoration artist working on one of the alcoves inside of the church

A restoration artist working on one of the alcoves inside of the church (2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visitor’s tip:  There is no fee for visiting San Xavier del Bac though as you might imagine, it take a lot of effort to keep a historic building like this maintained so donations are appreciated (no pressure – just large plexiglass donation boxes).  Also, while you are welcome to attend Mass, if you are not Catholic, you are asked to abstain from taking Communion.  The mission is open daily from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm.  San Xavier del Bac is well worth the visit whether you are religious or not – please just respect that this is a place of worship and give it the respect that it deserves.

Photographer’s tip:  You are welcome to take photos but again, this is a working church so please be respectful of those that are there to pray.

Tip for the hungry:  If you visit mid-day (and especially on the weekend), there’s a good chance that one or more Native American (the mission is on the Tohono O’Odham Nation land) vendors will be selling frybread.   Mmm, frybread.  These tasty, tasty treats come in a variety of sweet and savory options.  There’s really no place to sit so just plan to stand around and make a bit of a mess.  It’s worth it.

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Silhouettes

I recently started working on a new series.  I’ll let the images speak for themselves – please click on the thumbnails to see them properly formatted.

They make great cards.  Just saying.

Send me a note if you’re interested in more information.

Cheers,
Michael

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