Photography is one of the few hobbies I have managed to keep up with in spite of numerous other distractions. Of course, I haven’t been able to shoot as much as I like to but hopefully our move to Austin will let me explore better parts of Texas around here. In the meantime, I’ve been shooting my son as he grows up and between Instagram, I’ve managed to amass quite a decent collection of memories. However, at times I feel I’m just using my gut instinct and intuition to shoot what looks best. If something doesn’t, then I just fix it in Lightroom. But as any photographer will tell you, it is part art and part science. It is essential to be cognizant of the rule of photography even if you end up breaking them. After all, you can alter the laws of physics by making light behave different than it does.
Moving to Austin has in a way helped me reach out to opportunities that weren’t available in College Station. Living in a big city obviously has its perks and one such perk is the access to community of any interest you may hold. Moreover, Austin has the distinction of being a liberal city in a conservative state so there are a wide variety of activities and interests for everyone. I had tried looking up photography clubs in College Station but apart from a defunct one, I had no luck.
On the other hand, Austin has several and in fact, has one for each aspect of photography. I found several via Meetup and joined a portrait photography group because it offered interesting-sounding workshops. The next available one was titled, ‘Portraits without Flash’ which was exactly what I wanted because I hate flash photography for its tendency to make images look flat . But the fact that it cost $119 to attend gave me pause. I asked around and found it wasn’t uncommon for Meetup groups to charge for attending workshops; in fact, it was the sign of being a quality workshop.
I attended the workshop along with two other photographers who had been attending such workshops for a while. In fact, it was my first formal workshop if you don’t count the undergraduate photography course I took for fun while in grad school in Atlanta. We were led by a professional photographer in his house which practically was a photo studio with professional lights and backgrounds. He had even invited a professional model to pose for us so we would actually be shooting her to practice our skills. She had makeup done professionally and knew exactly how to pose when instructed by the photographer.
We first practiced in natural light from a large window and he showed us little tricks in getting the best side of a woman . He showed us how to not fight the light but in fact use it to make the model look beautiful. By using the qualities of light – intensity, direction, color, and amount – we can dramatically alter the mood of any image. By using reflectors and the right white balance, you can improve the quality of your portrait significantly; so much so that your subjects will think you’re some kind of magician.
After natural lighting, he proceeded to bring out his studio lights in ascending order of size and complexity and asked us to shoot the model to create different moods from soft glamor to harsh intense profiles. Although, as he said, women shy away from shadows on their face, you can use them to create a more grim and stark mood. The aim of portrait photography however is not to show off your photographic skills but simply to make the subject look beautiful. If the first impression of your portrait by a viewer is on how skilled the photographer must have been and not how beautiful (or whatever mood the intent was) the subject is, then you’ve failed.
Every face has a structure and relates very specifically to light in creating a pattern of light and shadows on their face. It can highlight, no pun intended, their features and bring out their beauty that is otherwise not noticed in unflattering light. The job of the photographers is to study their subject’s face and use their understanding of light and knowledge of art to create a significantly better portrait than what may exist in real life. Partly deceptive but photography is not always about realism (that went out after the Renaissance period) but about creating a beautiful image.
The manner in which he dealt with the model was also insightful. Always respectful but never too deferential. After all, it was her job to pose for us and he didn’t try to make her comfortable. In fact, most of the poses, he said, are uncomfortable but are meant to hold for as long as it takes to capture that photograph. Also, you can’t go into a shoot and ask the model to do what she thinks is good. Most people even models are not aware so photographers are partly choreographers that set up their creation to shoot. He taught us several posing techniques that are flattering to a woman and drastically alter the way they look. The transformation is almost magical. A significantly experienced model is like putty in the hands of a skilled photographer. However, these skills are not learned overnight and needs practice and confidence.
I couldn’t even begin to direct the model partly because I felt awkward and partly because I didn’t know what the heck would look sexy. You also have to communicate with the model bluntly and not mince words. He was casually talking about accentuating her curves, asking her to push her bust out or telling her to move her hips back. His tone was professional yet firm and whenever he touched her, he told her he was going to touch her. The model too was very accommodating and didn’t show any sense of being uncomfortable. All this was very new to the introvert me. I can’t ask my wife to push her bust out for a photo let alone ask a beautiful woman who is a complete stranger.
There are plenty other tips that cannot be put in words but make perfect sense while shooting portraits. As one of the participant said, most of the things we learned seemed obvious in the hindsight but to actually have them demonstrated and having us capture them made all the difference. I was definitely very impressed with the workshop and it was the best $119 I spent.
In fact, I am now tempted to upgrade my camera gear and household high command approval pending, invest in a small studio light to set up in our garage. After the workshop, I chatted for a while with the photographer who gave me more tips on bettering my skills and invited me to engage with the community more often. I’ll definitely be attending more meetups.
I’m listing some of the portraits I took below. Rest are available on Flickr. None of these have been touched up in Lightroom and are direct transfers from my camera, something that is rare for me these days.