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Monday, June 30, 2008

People Portraits

It's fair to admit that nearly everyone tends to alter themselves when in front of a camera, including myself. There's an entire spectrum of how one can react the moment s/he realized that there's a lens pointed in their direction. On one end, the person stays loose and natural, continues with whatever they might have been doing. When the photographer's goal is to get a natural shot of what actually is occurring, which is 98% of the time, this type of subject is ideal. On the other end is the subject who totally stops everything, who either freezes or flashes the most impossibly ginormous smile to last for all time, or at least until the camera gets put down or changes direction.

It's interesting to watch this latter process happen, especially from a cultural, Pavlovian standpoint. Point the camera, and it will immediately bring a frozen smile, or in its place, an impossibly cheesy facial expression, a flashing of a fake gangster sign, or the stereotypical Japanese peace sign. If the lens stays up, so does the expression. The minute the camera goes away, so does the pose.

Nearly all professional photographers (at least those who do not work for a portrait service) abhor the 'pose' and will do anything to evade it. This usually entails, unfortunately, pulling tricks and little white lies to keep it at bay, and retain the original moment as best as possible.

From my own experience, I've found it best to do one of two things. Option #1 is to snag a portrait the first moment possible, before the subject either knows the camera is out (or has time to react). It's a great method to get fairly candid, off-the-cuff results, but it also doesn't give me any setup or composition time. It's a pretty luck of the draw. Option #2: I'll let that 'pose' come out, wear itself out, and die, then take the photo. It totally sucks to play this game, and it doesn't give much respect to the subject sometimes, but 99% of photographers, including myself, are working hard to give the subject an accurate, interesting face.

I usually deal with this situation when shooting with two of my three cameras- either my 35mm Leica point and shoot or the Canon 5D which gives you the pictures on this blog. However, when shooting with my third camera, which is my pride and joy, I am able to bypass this entire photographer-subject dance. The camera is a Toyo 45A, and it is a large format field camera that shoots film negatives that are 4"x5" large. The negatives are huge, nearly a quarter of a sheet of paper in size, and produce some of the most amazingly rich and tonal images possible. Another image from this past winter is below.

Joey- NJ

Aside from looking really old-style and being as large as my head, the camera requires the use of a tripod and a darkcloth, which I slip over my head and camera in order to focus the image in the camera. People bug out when they see it, and automatically think its some relic from the 1800s. It's funny to see how the use of a darkcloth make people think a camera is really, really old. Sometimes it's annoying, especially when I'm trying to nail a shot real quick, but if I have time, I'll get the subject under the hood to see how magical it is to look at just about anything behind ground glass. This also helps them 'get it': that this isn't some photo to be passed around in a family email, but it's more fo' serious, more fine art.

This entire process- the viewing of the camera, the setup time, the explaination of how it works- usually gets the subject really excited about the picture that's about to be taken. Most importantly, it helps me bypass the 'pose' I'd get if I had been shooting the subject with a smaller camera. The ensuing mental state of the subject- aware of the camera, engaged, yet natural looking- is something I'm excited about, because we're able to cut right to the chase of what I'm after in the first place- a simple and engaging portrait, directly linked to why I wanted to capture in the first place.

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