People aware:portrait,scale and setting


In order to prepare for this exercise I am going to study some examples of portrait photography.  A favourite portrait photographer of mine is Jane Bown and I have just bought Exposures a collection of her photography  ( + see  Books section ) .  I will need to consider the background for all 4 scales of portrait. David Bailey is famous for his black and white images, frequently with a white background. When composing a planned portrait I tend to prefer a tight composition of head and shoulders , with an unobtrusive background (I like black—-not to everyone’s taste though ).Including the whole body in a composition involves more careful consideration, I rarely include the whole body in my images , hence a real challenge to me, but the biggest challenge  will be including the torso and arms: what to do with the hands?

A face tightly cropped in the frame creates an intense strong image, I hope to achieve this with careful framing, not cropping the image post shutter. For this reason I am glad the models I will be using are family and I will feel comfortable getting close.  Chapter 5 Intimate Life  Charlotte Cotton,  The photograph as contemporary art  ,  new edition, Thames & Hudson, London 2009 is particularly relevant to exercise 1 as I will be using family members. Nan Goldin is perhaps the best known artist in this genre and someone whose work I greatly admire and get influence from. Her work is perhaps the antithesis to Jane Bown’s, using colour, and recording the lives of her circle of friends and lovers. Her work , although intimate, directs “the viewer to think beyond the specifics of her subject’s lives and about general narratives of universal experience” Pg 139.

 Another consideration is whether to create colour or black and white images. I love highly saturated bold coloured images, but equally like a well composed black and white image. I have got to organise my models ( long suffering family members ).This in itself is hard work , arranging a sitting between work, school, or doctors appointments &  OAP  meetings ( my elderly mother) etc. I am planning to take more than one subject for this exercise, time and commitments willing. For portraits I have 2 lenses that I like, a 50mm and 85mm lens, both have a maximum aperture of  F1.8. As I use a cropped sensor camera these are ideal portrait lenses. However I feel I might need to use a wider angle of view for the whole body shot , I will wait and see how the session goes, in this case I will use my 28-75 F2.8 zoom lens. I rarely use an aperture smaller than F5.6 for portraits , Jane Bown has a setting she likes to use 1/60  F2.8 “I usually make the picture work around this”  as she states in “Unknown Bown 1947——1967”  Observer Books London 2007

Looking @ other examples of portraiture

How to make a Jane Bown portrait video tutorial /images & discussions

Watched very short video with Eamonn McCabe discussing how Jane Bown creates her images.

Points to consider  when I am taking my  images for this (&future) exercises if I want to show her influence/style of portraiture.

1:Light——uses available light——e.g. window.

2:Plain background —-makes the subject stand out

3:She does not use flash

4:She sometimes uses an angle- poise light to create a catch-light in the subjects eyes.

5:Consider the subjects gaze —-what are they looking @ , what is happening & what are they thinking?

6:She uses black & white, colour complicates.

However whilst considering  this set of criteria I will need to make the images I produce “my own” and not slavishly copy  but perhaps be just guided along the way.

Scale examples: Full body

 Copies of images in my scrap book. + see web link for some of the images

As I rarely take a full body portrait I immediately  thought “ah someone stood up in front of the camera” . Not the case !!

Looking for examples in “Exposures Jane Bown” Guardian Books 2009 I came across 3 interesting full body portraits, all different but I feel each shows the personality of the subject.

Pg 130 Cilla Black, 1967

A well know bubby personality , in this image she is not looking out @ the photographer but drinking from a cup looking away towards her left. She is sat on a soft looking settee.  The image captures her youth, she is wearing a  short skirt with her legs kept together above the knees, but below her legs, and feet, are splayed out as is her right arm creating a sense of movement across the frame and emphasising her youthfulness. She seems oblivious to the camera and is @ ease and ready to move if called.

Pg 14 Diana Mosley, 1981

This image makes an interesting comparison. The subject is sat in the middle of a hard stone bench in the middle of the frame. She looks slightly ill @ ease and is looking directly in the direction of the camera. Her body language emphasises her possible unease, and her more advanced years. Her legs are placed close together @ the ankles and her hands grip the seat. The composition is interesting, there is a gap in the foliage behind the subject where you can see a lake, this has the effect of making you gaze beyond the main subject and I feel somehow makes her seem almost vulnerable and alone in a large world: as many old people are. Its also perversely  quite a static composition because of the subjects body language  that neither of the other two full length images have, this is quite fitting to subject.

Pg 90 Liza Minnelli, 1973

Another full length image and again the subject is not standing but sat on the floor changing her footwear. Although the background is very plain her clothing and her body language indicate her profession. Movement is created across the frame by her outstretched arms and legs.

Scale examples: Face cropped in close

The eyes are going to be very much the point of focus in a tight composition like this. The focal length and depth of field will need to be carefully controlled. I came across an image by a photographer I have not heard of whilst looking for examples of this type of framing.

One by Ken Ohara The Photography Book,  Phaidon Press Ltd ,London 1997,  pg 351. Copy of image in my scrapbook.

I find it quite an unsettling image to look at, the eyes and brows, nose, and mouth are all that are in the frame. It creates an intensity that is difficult to resolve.

One 1970  Ken Ohara was a book of portraits all framed the same way.

Scale examples: Torso

Pg 140 illustration 132. Nan Goldin Siobhan at the A House #1, Provincetown, MA, 1990 . Charlotte Cotton,  The photograph as contemporary art  ,  new edition, Thames & Hudson, London 2009 .

Copy in scrap book

This portrait, including the torso, uses opulent tones that seem at odds with the subject.  Clothed only in a deep shaded short blue cardigan, her hands placed on her lap, she stares intently at the camera. Looking at this image I find myself wondering what is she thinking , how did she come to look so dishevelled ?. The image makes me care about her.

Looking through Exposures has given me some ideas of how to pose hands, if I include them,  to try out. Will write about what I decide as I take each individual portrait.

Attempt 1

     Sunday 20th December. 2pm——-3.30pm. Using available light.Indoors , 12ft by 15ft sitting room. Plain cream coloured walls .Bright sunny day with lots of daylight coming through the large window, unusual for December—-it had snowed earlier. Daylight WB , ISO 400 , & partial metering for all shots, using a tripod & 28-75 F2.8 lens.I forgot to take my remote shutter switch.

  1. Initially I placed my subject against the back wall facing the window & sat her on a chair next to a table. I cleared a lot of the clutter around her as I found it very distracting when composing the full body shots. It was easy to compose the extreme close up and head & shoulders. Whilst including the torso I took images with & without  the hands to compare. To frame the images I either moved physically back or used a shorter focal length. With the subject sat here I really struggled to fit the full figure into the frame. I attempted to frame vertically but my tripod decided to refuse to move around , & I did not want to shoot without it, hence I gave up .  What I thought was going to be a straightforward exercise was not so simple.

    Therefore I moved my subject across the room by the side of the window, to take advantage of the  sidelight & being able to physically move further away across the room (no obstacles in my way). The light actually posed a problem occasionally as the sunlight was so bright it was difficult to judge the settings & also created very deep shadows across one side of her face, I don’t mind this but not very flattering for an older lady!. Additionally she was sat in a comfier arm chair ,& looked more @ ease than before.

    Reviewing the images in my browser I whittled the acceptable images down to 13 from a total of over 40 that I had taken ! I was actually surprised @ just how difficult it is to take a portrait “to order” in a specific way. Out of these I have chosen my final four. I do not like the full figure views, perhaps that’s due to the background? . Surprisingly   I rather like the very tightly cropped portraits. 

    Extreme close up.

    F3.2       1/50      75mm

    A portrait taken with an extreme crop can create an intense , and sometimes uncomfortable to look at, image. There is nothing in the frame except the facial expression to give any further clues about the subject as a person, & the space they inhabit. The eyes are the main focal point ,helped by the shallow DOF, and the framing.  The nose is possibly slightly over exaggerated even @ this focal length, this may be due to the subject looking straight ahead perhaps? The close crop creates a commanding image, the subject is smiling here so the impact is not quite so threatening, or confrontational, to look at than an unsmiling, scowling image of an individual .

     Head & Shoulders

    F3.2     1/50    40mm

    I changed the focal length but not my position to take this image. Here the whole face & hairstyle are visible to the viewer, revealing a bit more about the subject as a person. However the background is plain, as I asked my model to sit by a plain wall, so again nothing is revealed about the location.


    F9         0.5sec                 28mm

    The subject is gazing out of the frame, not looking @ the viewer , deep in thought. The background, even though against a plain wall, now includes a light switch ,  the edges of a table & chair, a sense of location is becoming more apparent. Her arms create a triangular shape intended to lead the eye upwards towards the face, & the hands form a circle framing her face. Her  face & expression are still the most important elements in this composition, but the inclusion of her arms & hands helps create movement within the frame .Hopefully her body language will cause the viewer to think more about who & where she is , what is she thinking, is she alone? Positioning the arms was quite awkward & needs to be thought out quite carefully, ” Interestingly , for the last25 years  Bailey has avoided including hands in his portraits” pg 128  McCabe, Eamonn The making of great photographs :approaches and techniques of the masters , Cincinnati,Ohio; Newton Abbot : David & Charles, 2008 .

    Full Figure

    F9            1/4 sec          28mm

    My least favourite of the 4 scales of portrait that I took. Also my weakest composition, not framed well, + I have cut her feet off . The location has become a major part of the image, with the focal emphasis on her  immediate surroundings, as well as the subject. A full figured  portrait  contains a lot more information to consider than a more tightly framed image, body language can communicate a lot to a viewer. Unfortunately my example does not really “talk” too well.  Facial expression is not the main focal point in this composition but can be viewed in conjunction with other elements in the frame to understand the whole picture & perhaps make a considered judgement about the subject, who they are, what they do. Thinking about my response to this image I think  the location could be more exciting & therefore my judgement on this type of portrait scale is highly subjective. Therefore I am looking forward to Exercise 2 to see if my opinion alters.


Attempt 2

All images 50mm,1/50, ETTL flash, spot metering, ISO 400.

A series of images all taken indoors with flash. I used my 50mm prime lens & relied on “foot zoom”. I used flash with a diffuser bounced off a white ceiling. My main concern was to get the 4 scales of portrait & I was not too concerned if the background was underexposed. White walls all around. No tripod used (see rants & raves) as I was photographing a six year old & needed to get down to her level, it was much easier to manoeuvre about. Room 15ft by 12ft with plain green velvet curtains used as backdrop. Luckily she is a very obliging model , children can be tricky to work with, the advantage of digital photography meant she could review what I was taking as we went along.

    Extreme close up
    She looked directly into the camera & both eyes have remained in focus, important for such a direct portrait.I also took a sideways view to compare but found @ F 2.5 only one eye was in focus, using a smaller aperture of F4 kept both eyes focused & worked better.It would be difficult to get this close to an unknown child comfortably.The eyes create the impact in such an extreme close up.



Head & Shoulders


The shallow DOF has thrown from the neck down out of focus. She was leaning slightly forward , I like the expression on her face. Its is impossible to tell where this photograph was taken as the background is only minimal.

Chapter 5 Intimate Life Charlotte Cotton,  The photograph as contemporary art  ,  new edition, Thames & Hudson, London 2009 is particularly pertinent to this exercise as I am using family members, making it  difficult to create an objective image & create a less “family snap” type image. She mentions 2 photographers , Ruth Erdt & Elinor Carucci who use their families but notes “There is a neutrality in their techniques rather than a pronounced style such as that of a family snap” pg 157. Furthermore  both photographers’  show” a conscious paring down of detail , such as dress and mise-en-scene , that would date or overly particularize a photograph” pg 159.



The location is still obscure @ this scale. She chose the pose herself , her arms & hands do not cause too much distraction away from her face & help create movement across the frame making this a less static image. The sideways pose towards the camera works better than standing face on towards the camera.

Full figure


As before this is my least favourite of the portrait scales. I took another full figure photograph of my model stood up but she looked ill at ease & awkward. She looks reasonably relaxed here. I had to compose vertically to fit her in the frame. I feel the surroundings are not particularly exciting & do little to add to the general interest of the image. Hence for exercise 2 I shall have to really put some consideration into the background in order to create a visually exciting portrait.


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