4.18.2012

For me, taking a portrait is a process of reduction.


When I make a portrait I don't consciously think about what we're doing.  I ask my subject to sit comfortably in the studio and I try to look seriously at their face when they are not "on camera" so I can see what they really look like, and then I look again to see what they look like to me.

I may have paced back and forth before the person arrived and I may have set up some elaborate lighting constructions, the undertaking of which was no doubt a therapeutic way to keep my hands and my brain busy so I wouldn't have time to contemplate the very real possibility of failure.  Of inviting someone to my studio and then being unable to create an image/portrait/photography during the time spent together that either of us would like.  So I typically spend hours setting up lighting designs and testing them and then modifying them or changing directions altogether.

The first few minutes of a session are the most nervous for me.  I want to get right into the action of taking portraits but I know, intuitively, that I'd better slow down and start patiently so the person on the other side of the camera has a chance to settle in, get comfortable with the space, and make their peace with the camera.  Even though I am, in truth, a terrible introvert I feel the need to engage and entertain.  I don't want people to be bored in my space.  I don't want their boredom to negate our purpose.

If I'm shooting film I talk to the subject about the process.  I tell them that, unlike the endless supply of frames in a digital camera, we'll have to stop after every twelve frames in order to change the film. I tell them that the process will take more time than they might be used to.  I explain that, while in the movies about photographers the photo-protagonist leaps about like a gymnasts and screams out frantic and non-stop directions that keep the models constantly swirling and stumbling from one pose to the next to the beat of incredibly loud house music, our session won't be like that.

I explain that we'll move slowly so I can see what angles and expressions really look good in the camera.  When we find a look I like we'll try to hold in that basic set and make micro adjustments till we get everything just right.

Now, in the days of all digital, all the time, I've compromised a bit and given up shooting Polaroid tests.  It helps my process of rationalization that Polaroid no longer makes test film for my camera and Fuji doesn't make the kind I like.  So I take tests with an random digital camera set to the same ISO as my black and white film.  Once I've shot digital tests from a bunch of different angles and looked at the images on some sort of screen I am ready to proceed.

I can't rationalize shooting film in 35mm anymore.  It's different than digital but it's not what I learned on and it's not how I cut my teeth in portraits.  I shoot with a square, medium format camera.  Usually a Hasselblad 501 CM.  I nearly always use the 150mm Planar lens.  I like the 180 as well.  So my camera is on a tripod and the lens is well shaded from flare and other glancing light.  Kind of important since I'm standing right at the edge of my giant soft light.  I'm so close I bump my head into the side of the soft box, or the edge of the frame, a lot during the shoots.

On a small table next to my tripod is a stack of loaded film backs.  As I shoot I'll reach down and grab a new back from the table when I hit the end of a roll.  The used back goes on the table, but upside down.  That's my cue that the film in the back has been used up.  I have six 120 backs so every 72 frames we take a little break and I download the spent film and put it into an envelope.  Then I load all six backs with fresh film, put them back on the little table and we start again.

When we first start the shoot I think I'll want a fill light and a back light but as soon as I start looking at test shots these extra lighting instruments go away.  There's generally one light on the background and one light in a really big softbox or octabank.  These stay but the big light might get pulled in closer or raised, if the spirit moves me.

I know we're on the right track when the subject and I both feel a kind of electric excitement because we've discovered an angle, an expression and a gesture that feels so right.  I know we're done and getting stale when we start suggesting conventional poses.  These days I'm rarely looking for a portrait with a smile, unless it's genuine and unscripted.  I calm and quiet face is my secret for getting beautiful eyes.  A calm and quiet session is my secret for being able to reduce the noise, reduce distractions and reduce movement until we have a stasis and a balance that feels right.  Almost like a guided meditation.

And at some point, like an arrow shot into the air, we hit a high spot where we both know that we're "on" and that we're getting beautiful images, and then, like the arrow it all falls back to the earth.  We both know we're done.  And we thank each other profusely for the part each of us played and we promise each other we'll do it again soon.  And I hope we will.  Because almost everyone I shoot is so beautiful.


http://www.kirktuck.com/site/home.html

21 comments:

Martin G said...

Thanks again Kirk! I love reading about your process when making portraits.

Don Parsons said...

I'd like to read about your process of making environmental portraits.

nine said...

I don't no who is She, but found good depth on her eyes.

Dave Jenkins said...

You have shown us many portraits of Renae, but I like this one the best. You truly got her to let her hair down in this one and the long hair adds another dimension to her beauty.

Gregg Mack said...

Thank you for sharing all of this with us, Kirk. The results you get are incredibly beautiful. Makes me think that I've been wasting my time trying to capture the person with their "true smile".

Frank Grygier said...

I learn so much from your writings and admire the work you do. Another beautiful Kirk Tuck classic portrait. I guess I won't need the "boom box" this weekend.

DGM said...

A wonderful portrait. I love the analogy of the "guided meditation". Thanks again for sharing your process.

Robert Roaldi said...

I have never sat for a portait session, nor have I ever shot portraits. This was fascinating.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Awesome photo, and an even better description on how you achieve those results. This is like a master class in portraiture, where I'd just love to be the fly on the wall just to look and listen...

Debra Broughton said...

I loved reading this - it read like a guided meditation. And the result is just beautiful.

Alex said...

>while in the movies about photographers the photo-protagonist leaps about like a gymnasts and screams out frantic and non-stop directions

Yeah! A stereotype set by the pretentious and extremely overrated "Blow Up". Even before reading this, I was 100% sure you weren't like that guy :)

Thank you for your educational and entertaining posts, Kirk!

kirk tuck said...

"Pout for me, baby, and I'll make you a star..."

Patrick Dodds said...

Thanks for this Kirk - I thought you'd told us all about your working methods before, but really, you hadn't even begun. A beautiful piece of prose and a beautiful portrait.

algenonQ said...

This is exactly why I read your blog. Your written images are as powerful as a good photograph. I was there in the studio with you as I read this.

Carlo Santin said...

I enjoyed this post quite a bit and I think it's one of your better ones in recent months. Wonderful insight into how and why you shoot...the why is infinitely more interesting. I never would have guessed you to be an introvert. Thanks for a great read.

stefano60 said...

... and THIS is the way i enjoy attending a workshop, from the privacy of my desk!

on a -perhaps- less positive note, the film shooting part of me that i thought i had been able to finally put to rest is now waking up again and forcing me to look into medium format gear again ... thanks a lot, Kirk!!! :-)

Nick Nichols said...

Thank you Kirk, an amazing portrait and the "whys" & "hows" to match. You inspire me to push forward, to be the best I can. Regards, Nick

Don said...

Really a great essay, and a beautiful image. You have a way of making portraits in which the (usually beautiful woman)subject comes alive and you can truly look into their eyes and see the spark that makes each person unique. That's the essential skill, not focus or DOF or any other technical attribute. Very inspiring and as said above, like taking a master class in a read. Thanks very much for sharing. If you ever hold a workshop in Austin, I'm flying down...(and I really like coffee a lot...) Don
www.newportimage.com

Doug said...

Kirk, sitting here recovering from unexpected hernia surgery yesterday. My point, hydrocodone, valium and coffee seem to blend beautifully, plus I have time to write! Last week, I told you I was withholding judfment on your new direction. This blog tells me that the new direction is looking good. I couldn't agree more about the eyes in a portrait, the eyes truly being the "windows to our soul." While I have done studio portraiture in my past, I am primarily a nature photographer. Not surprisingly, my most captivating animal portraits have fabulous eyes. In fact, Even when I am capturing the decisive.moment, the eyes remain crucial. As an aside, over the last seven years, I have been privileged to lead mission teams to a small village called Mwandi in Zambia. It is here that I have been discovering the pleasure and privilege of street portraiture, especially with the amazing orphans and vulnerable children I work with. Your blog has gotten me thinking about how I can capture.the beauty and poignancy of these amazing kids this August when I return, Lord willing. The great things is that, through the generosity of a friend, I will be able to do my third show in their gallery, after I return, to raise funds for the Orphan Center. So, keep teaching me, Kirk. I appreciate it. And so will the Orphan Center!:)

kirk tuck said...

Sorry about the emergency hernia operation. Can't have been fun. It's all about the eyes. When you know that and you abandon the quest for lens sharpness and camera resolution you know you have made it as an artist. Open your heart and shoot. Thanks for saying nice things.

Charles Haskell said...

In the May issue of Outdoor Photographer, Dewitt Jones writes that for him "photography is a spiritual practice." My primary interest is portraiture and I, too, consider it a spiritual practice. Your blog comes the closest of any I've seen that appears to have a similar philosophy. Would you go so far as to say that photography is a spiritual practice for you?