Last weekend I had the opportunity to take some portraits for a friend. I consider it quite the honor to have had the opportunity to take these portraits. It’s not often that you get to take pictures that really make a difference for someone, and aren’t just a vanity project. My friend, Arnel, needed some new photos for work, and for his blog. Arnel has ALS, and while not in Stephen Hawking’s condition, he is confined to a wheelchair, and has side-effects from the medication he takes. Despite it all, he keeps on working, and maintains an upbeat attitude. These two portraits are my favorites of the bunch.
I particularly like the one that shows his wheelchair because it’s there, it reminds you that he’s not ordinary, but it also doesn’t pull you away from his essential dignity and presence. It presents his disability as just a small part of who he is, rather than defining him by it.
We did these last two photos for his blog – he writes about his experience as someone with a disability, and what he does to overcome it. Here he’s demonstrating how to use a head mouse – there’s a sensor that mounts to the top of his laptop screen and looks at his head, and it reads the movement of the little silver square and translates that into clicks on the screen. He can type with it, too.
We did these shots in his living room which he has set up as an office. I brought along some portable battery-powered studio lights and used them to illuminate him working because unlike the portraits, which were taken outdoors (we were extremely lucky that we had high overcast clouds providing a beautiful natural softbox effect), the work area was quite dim and lit with overhead recessed lights which would have been terribly unflattering in addition to being too dim to get good exposures.
These are some portraits I took of my friend Alexander last weekend out in Georgetown. We went out to create some work for a fundraiser benefit in Toronto for Sprott House, a youth shelter run by the YMCA specifically aimed at providing housing for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and two-spirit (the native American term for LGBTQ) teens and young adults. Alexander is a Latino trans man and open and proud, and I thought some portraits of someone living an out, proud life as transgender would be inspiring for kids struggling to deal with their own identities and the impact of being “other” on their futures.
The first couple images are pretty serious and straight images (pardon the pun).
A little bit of humor – this is Alexander’s club-hopping t-shirt. I teased him about the mixed message of serious literature on a clubbing shirt. But it is Lolita, so I guess it qualifies 🙂
Just because a photo has a serious purpose and carries with it a political statement doesn’t mean it has to be serious. While I was posing Alexander in front of the wall of graffiti, he spotted the duck with its tongue sticking out and imitated it. It was a great spontaneous moment and shows his personality.
Alexander wanted to do some shots to show off his growing muscle definition, so he went and climbed the stone pier for the ramp over the canal…
And then jumped off of it…
His script tattoo says “it is better to have kisses than wisdom”. I haven’t made up my mind about whether I agree with the sentiment, but it definitely suits his personality.
Under the ramp to the freeway that passes over the C&O Canal there’s always some interesting graffiti, and right now it’s tagged with this beautiful silver metallic paint that really complemented Alexander’s red and purple outfit.
The last image I feel makes for a great closer for the series – Alexander’s gesture seems to be saying “come with me and we’ll have a fun time!”.
This is a view I’ve seen a number of times but wasn’t ever sure how to capture it until yesterday. I’ve always had the wrong camera with me, either from the focal length, the aspect ratio, or both, perspective. This is an outtake in the sense that I was doing a model shoot with a friend of mine on the pier of the old C&O Canal bridge that used to cross the Potomac River in Georgetown, so taking this photo was not the purpose of the shoot. This is the view looking straight down at the dock for the boathouse.
I was particularly drawn to the geometry and angles formed by the decking on the boat dock, with the red decking running perpendicular to the unpainted deck, and all the triangles formed by the perspective you have to take to see the scene in the first place. Even the boat, which has a totally different shape and texture to the decking, creates more triangles with its prow, and provides visual tension running the opposite direction so you move your eye around the image.
There are times when you want to capture something delicate in backlit lighting – a translucent flower for example. Going strictly with the natural light you end up with either the translucent parts blown out to get detail into the front, or you have a dark blob in the middle to keep the delicate highlights under control. This is where fill flash comes in handy.
Normally I loathe little pop-up or shoe-mounted flashes because they’re about useless when trying to light anything more than a couple feet away, and they’re so close to the lens that they give people red eye and make pets look like demons. But as a fill flash, they really shine (shine, get it? pun!). They put out just enough light to take the edge off backlit shadows and add a little catchlight into people’s eyes. When used this way redeye isn’t a problem because in daylight people’s pupils are closed down enough that their retinas don’t reflect (the cause of red eye in photos).
Fortunately, flowers don’t have retinas, so we can dismiss the concern altogether.
I was using my Fuji X-T1 and had the tiny little toy-like pop-up flash that comes with the camera as an accessory. I took one shot of the blossoms without the flash. I knew right away that the blossoms would be too dark and not have detail; the little flash was exactly what I needed. I popped it up and let it put in a little kick. Voila!
In this set I’m including some black-and-white shots along with the color ones to show what the Fuji can do. I used the b/w+R setting (the equivalent of using a red filter when shooting black and white film). I don’t know that this is as extreme as actually shooting black-and-white film with a red filter in terms of the contrast and look, but I like it.
Mustafa showed up to the shoot in a tux, which is hard to work around if that’s not what you’re aiming for. It’s a good look, and a very elegant one, but not necessarily fitting a pool hall. I tried to shake things up a bit with the kaleidoscope glasses, the steampunk welder’s goggles and my own vintage leather jacket. Tip to models – unless you are told wardrobe will be provided, always bring at least two different looks to a test shoot with you so you don’t get stuck looking out-of-place on the shoot.
Mustafa has a great face – he looks good from lots of angles. When posing a model or a portrait subject, you want to make sure that you’re not doing anything un-flattering. If you’re turning the head away from front-on, you want the nose to either obviously stand back from or break the contour of the cheek so you don’t inadvertently flatten it by having it by having the tip of the nose meet the outline of the cheek. At the same time, pay attention to the eyes – you want to see whites on both sides of the iris. If you turn someone’s head in part profile and then have them look back at the camera with their eyes, the irises in the corner of the eye make them look like a psycho-killer. In these shots it works because he’s looking the same direction with his eyes as his face is pointing.
Here’s the set I did with Jayy Ruger (his professional name). While it definitely pays to add the colored gel to the fill light to add a touch of drama and character to a scene, it also pays to give it a light touch. In this first profile shot, if his face had gone totally red, it would have looked freakish or just poorly exposed/lit. Instead, the red on his cheek gives the image depth, and makes his otherwise flat makeup look more alive. Compare to the second image which was lit entirely with the overhead fluorescent light above the pool table where he looks almost corpse-like (entirely appropriate if you’re going Goth but maybe not the best look if you’re doing a family portrait).
Late last year I went on a lighting binge, and one of the light modifiers I bought was a beauty dish. I had this specialized one from Bowens I really wanted to try out because the dish has a hybrid diffuser with a center grid. In the bathroom interior shots, it was the only light source I brought to the scene. The rest of the light is from the existing bathroom lights and the fill created by the white walls acting as reflectors.
One of the great strengths of the Fuji (and one of the reasons I bought it) is its incredibly good handling of mixed color temperature lighting. You can see the color of light in the next several shots does vary, but regardless of what I threw at it, the Fuji did a terrific job of keeping skin tones natural and not shifting fabrics off in some wild direction in response to a mix of light sources.
Back to using a red gel again – it adds a bit of a sinister note to the shot, which creates an interesting tension between that look and the suggestive pose.
And we’ll close on a fun note – Jayy was being a great model and got into the whole steampunk thing with the goggles (he was already halfway there with his outfit!)
These are the same kaleidoscope glasses you saw in the previous model set with Alex. This shot was lit solely with an umbrella softbox. It’s like an umbrella, but more of a tight parabolic shape instead of the broad surface umbrella you normally think of. There’s a slit in the side of the fabric that allows the flash unit to sit inside the umbrella’s body, and then you can close it inside entirely with the diffuser (if you remember to bring it!). I wanted to focus your attention on Jayy in this shot so I moved in super tight and used a relatively fast shutter speed to let the background go completely dark. In the full length shot immediately previous to this one, I dragged the shutter to give a lot of background light, allowing you to sense the quality of the space behind him.