Location for whole body or torso portrait.

When I plan a portrait I inevitably choose to do a close up head & shoulders with as little background detail as possible. If I happen to have my camera with me & I take pictures the background is usually incidental. I love the minimalist pared down portraits of William Burroughs, 1995, taken by  Annie Leibovitz  (copy in scrap book) . However she states “they were not the kinds of pictures I usually take……I’m very uncomfortable coming in close like that…………I usually pull back from the subjects of a portrait and include things around them in the picture” Annie Leibovitz At Work” Jonathan Cape London2008 pg 161. Its reassuring  to know someone as famous as this also feels awkward in certain situations.

My natural preference for close up portraiture will make this a challenging exercise for me. The juxtaposition of a subject & background is another element to take into consideration , & this can be used to make a more unusual, & active portrait. The weather has not been too good & has actually made it quite difficult for me to get out & about as  much as I would like, + I have been unwell for 2 weeks & have not really felt like location hunting!

It is interesting to consider that “Photographers and viewers alike tend to pay less attention to what is the background of a picture because they think it is less important than what is in the foreground. This is a mistake. You should always think of a background and foreground as two equal parties to a visual conversation.  A background should have something to say, even if it is blank”  pg 113 Roswell Angier, Train your gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction To Portrait Photography. Ava publishing 2007.

See  web link to exhibition of Irving Penn portraits of trades men & women. + see  Books section Ag magazine issue number 58.  What I found interesting was how Penn chose to take the portraits of tradesmen & women. He  ” took his trades men and women out of their environment and posed them in front  of the same plain backdrop that was in use for the fashion shots. Concentration therefore focused on their work clothes and the tools of their trade.” Ag Winter 2010, Editor Chris Dickie , Picture Box Media Ltd, Surrey, pg 86.  For these images the location is irrelevant allowing the observer to make a judgement solely on each subject’s appearance

This bridge crosses over a river & I kept the sun behind me as I took my reference shot. If I had been using a subject  the frontal lighting may have caused them to squint @ the camera, something to consider. I took my shot from a low angle & feel the lines of the bridge create movement & depth  drawing the eye into the frame  & would be useful in creating an interactive portrait by placing my subject at the far end of the bridge.

F4.5        1/800          70mm        ISO 400        Daylight WB

Gnarled tree

F4.5       1/3200               200mm             ISO 400         Daylight WB

The light here is lovely & I took this reference shot late afternoon as the sun was to my side. A consideration in using this as a background location is what focal length to use ? I would probably move physically closer to my subject to exclude some of the surrounding area , but the tree is useful for posing against.  Depending on the image I wanted to create I would choose the time of day carefully, low frontal lighting would create deep strong colours.

Skate park

I like the colours & general air of grunginess of this skate park. The location is quite interesting , the juxtaposition of subject & backdrop could be used to produce very different types of portraits.

 For full body  step further back to include more of the area

F7.1        1.250                  85mm              ISO 1000         Daylight WB

For torso shot move closer

F7.1         1/400               85mm     ISO 1000              Daylight WB

 Plain  & patterned  backgrounds around my house

My personal preference is for an uncomplicated plain background when taking a head & shoulders shot. I feel this could also work well with a torso or full figure portrait, I would need to consider the pose carefully. I have a black velvet background with a frame that I like & use frequently. Obviously I haven’t taken a reference picture of this. The beauty of this background is that its totally portable (but a pain to collapse).

I have also considered using plain brightly coloured sheets/curtains placed over the frame or pinned to a wall to contrast or compliment with the subjects clothing. I often use my voile curtains to diffuse the light if the subject is stood by a window.

My bathroom has a north facing window & I have used the white wooden panelling on a side wall as a backdrop before. The light comes from the side & creates depth & form , great especially is using an older model & if I want to get a more interesting image rather than a straightforward flattering portrayal. 

I have also used wrapping paper in the past as a backdrop for smaller subjects & could possibly use wallpaper —–will have a look in the DIY stores for any interesting patterned wallpaper that might be useful.  

Outside my house a south facing brick wall is a great place to stand a model, especially later in the day when the sun is low & creates side lighting, picking out fine facial detail. The dark brick wall stops the light reflecting back adding contrast.

F3              1/60             50mm               ISO 400         Daylight WB

Above location with subject

F5.6         1/80       28mm        ISO 200     Custom WB  

I was aiming for the pale smooth skin of my subject to contrast with the rough texture of the brickwork. 

Avoided placing my subject in the centre of the frame , and asked her to look up towards me with the aim of creating movement and avoid a static looking image.

Wrapping paper as a background

This sheet of wrapping paper caught my eye whilst out shopping, and I used it as a background for a head shot (not what I was supposed to be doing /should be suitable to include a  torso ) .  But I liked the pattern and the colours , as I usually use a plain background I thought it would be interesting to see how this worked as a background.

F5.6        1/60        ISO 200      Custom WB      Flash

As a backdrop with subject

F5.6     1/60      63mm        ISO 200      Custom WB         Flash/diffuser

For this image I felt the juxtaposition of the heart design backdrop  and my young model ( who is a little  sweetheart ) created an appealing image . I f I wanted to subvert the message  an older, uglier person  (is that politically correct of me ?!), or  a male subject would alter the context of how the background  and subject work together to create a revealing portrait. Using a location , or backdrop, to alter or enhance how my photographs are perceived is not something I have given a great deal of thought to, usually preferring a plain background. It might be fun to do this more often than be safe with my favourite black background.


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