Monday, 30 January 2012

An inspiration? Me? Gosh. And why a red dress is important.

There's a bit of back story with this one, so I hope you're sitting comfortably.
A couple of weeks ago a rather nice man came round to my house from RSG Portable Appliance Testing (who are very reasonably priced, efficient and get back to you promptly - no, I'm not on commision) to do the tests on my gear to make sure it's all safe. So while he was doing lots of technical things I made him a coffee and we got chatting.
He mentioned his girlfriend was just doing an online photography course and was having a few issues with portraits. I said that she should drop me a message if she needed a little chat so a few days later she did.
So on Saturday I picked up a few things and droppped round to her flat.
She seemed a little nervous at first but we got talking about a few things and some silly jokes later we got into the reason I was there. Her dad is into photography and she wanted to learn some more herself so she went to a local photography club (which she found to be quite stuffy) and with the course that she was doing she was finding some of it a bit difficult.

Now just to be clear - I'm a firm believer that if somone is trying to teach you something and you don't understand it it's not your fault it's their's. They need to find a better or different way to explain it so it makes sense to you. End of. Looking briefly through the course materials it seemed like there was a lot of space taken up saying what to do, but not really a massive amount of detail on how to do it well.

So anyway, we got to talking about portraits and she showed me some printouts of her assignment, which was to take two with natural light and two with artificial light. The natural light ones actually weren't too bad, the artificial light ones were less succesful, but they all had a similar problem which is quite common when people first start taking portraits. Their faces, particularly their noses, were slightly distorted. They seemed out of proportion, you ever had that? Well there's a very easy fix.

Step back and zoom in
This is going to sound really stupid but if something is closer to you it looks bigger. We all know this. So when you're taking a photograph if you have the camera really close to the person's face anything that sticks out towards you will become bigger in the final shot. The nose is a common one, but if they have angled their head up a bit the chin will look a lot broader (actually a good sneaky trick to make men look like they have a strong jaw too if used carefully).

So we chatted some more and she said that her pictures weren't as sharp as she'd like them to be. I asked to see her bridge camera and noticed it was already in manual mode. Yay! She had the confidence to take the training wheels off and make all the decisions herself.
I had a look at the pictures on her laptop (and zoomed right in) that she wasn't happy with and saw the problem she was having wasn't with the focus but parts of the picture that should be dots (pores in the skin for example) were actually very short lines, again a common issue but easy to solve.

Shutter Speed
Some of the portraits she'd taken it were in quite dark conditions so she'd looked at her light meter, adjusted her settings and then taken the shot. All good so far. The problem was that, looking at the data for the picture on her computer, she had set the shutter speed far too slow (in the case of the one I looked at it was about a third of a second). If you're taking a photograph of a person and you're hand holding the camera it's a good idea to have a reasonably fast shutter speed, anything from 1/50 of a second and up, so you don't risk a slight blur when you take the picture or if the person moves a little. It also depends on the lens you're using and how good you are at keeping the camera really still but this is a reasonable rule of thumb.
Now you can go slower than this but you would need to experiment with what works for you.

So after that she had a look in my camera bag (lust shining in her eyes) and then I told her how much it all cost (starting her wondering what the hell she's gotten herself into with this photography thing).
We talked about her next assignment, which is to recreate a photograph she likes and had a quick browse through some of the ones already done by other people on the course... Hmmmm.
I reckoned she could do better than most of them.

 After some looking around online and talking about what sort of thing she liked and how to see where the light was coming from in the shots (hint - look for the reflections in the eyes and where the shadows are falling) I suggested she tried to recreate one of my favourite portraits:

Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair - 1924

It does require some care and attention to detail, particularly with where the focus is and where the light is falling on the subject, but is doable without huge amounts of expensive lighting equipment.
So I left her feeling pretty happy and excited and went home to the pile of washing up I ought to have done earlier (my wife puts up with a lot).

Later that day she posted on Facebook that she'd had an inspirational afternoon, I got a kind of warm fuzzy feeling from that, and what did it cost me?
A little petrol and a couple of hours.

This got me to thinking. I like helping other people, I like the feeling it gives me so why don't I do it more often?

I've seen an idea floating around online started by The Bloggess involving the travelling red dress. Essentially it boils down to women giving themselves a boost by wearing an absolutely beautiful but thoroughly impractical red dress (imagine going down to the supermarket in a red ballgown on a Wednesday afternoon for no other reason than to feel wonderful).
The dress then gets handed on to someone else and they do it too. I liked the idea so much I've liked the Travelling Red Dress Facebook Page and offered to donate my services as photographer for a red dress day.
I'll let you know how it all turns out.

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