There is a trend that I see in the portrait work of many photographers that I think is counterproductive or at least blandly homogenizing... It's the tendency to light everything with very flat, omni-directional light sources. It could be a big beauty dish or softbox right above camera with gratuitous fill light coming from below camera and it could be as goofy and aesthetically flat as two big soft boxes; one on either side of the camera, giving a 1:1 lighting ratio.
What light like that does is to wipe out any real dimensional modeling on a human face and takes with it any interesting photographic sensibility in the photograph. The way one of these flatly lit documentations gets help to finally appeal to consumers is with tons of make-up or metric tons of post production work. I may be a rank traditionalist but I like a sense of depth in a photography and one way to achieve that is to create lighting that shows off the true contours of the face with light that comes from one main source. And though it is ubiquitous advice, the other tenet is to move your light away from the camera axis if you want it to be interesting.
I cringe when I see the work of a (self-proclaimed) famous headshot photographer who lights every one who comes into his studio with the same triangular assemblage of ultra soft fluorescent light sources. He uses them to wrap the light from top to bottom and side to side, as evenly as possible. All the heavy lifting to add any sort of three dimensional interest to the sitters' faces is done by a make-up artist. The flatly lit image giving the stylist a more or less blank canvas on which to paint. It certainly is an effective way to automate one's approach to making portraits but it rarely serves the final recipient as anything more than mundane documentation. Even the expressions the photographer coaxes from his customers are boringly the same and hopelessly contrived.
But maybe when we talk about a feeling of depth there is a
It was a typical Sunday morning back in the film days. Belinda and I headed down to West Sixth St. to have brunch at Sweetish Hill Restaurant. We sat on their lovely patio under a translucent awning and waited for our waiter to bring over the most addictive coffee I have ever known.
As has been my habit for well over thirty years I had a small camera dangling off my left shoulder, just in case I saw something that wanted to be photographed. I was running an advertising agency back then so there were no external constraints on which cameras I carried. On that day it was a small, black Olympus Pen FT half frame camera, loaded with Ilford FP4 film and sporting a smart little 40mm f1.4 lens. The same one I own and use now.
I liked the way the light came through the awning so I pulled my camera up, adjusted the exposure from experience (the meter in the camera had long been non-functional) and shot two or three frames at f2.0.
The dim finder of that camera (ancient even back then) coupled with the greater depth of field of the frame area meant that focusing was at it's best with the lens wide open, or nearly so.
I have printed this image onto 11x14 inch paper many, many times in an attempt to get it just right. This is a copy image of a fiber based print that I made sometime in the 1990's. The FP4 film contributes to the higher contrast of the photograph but at the same time it keeps film grain (analog noise?) to a minimum.
The film frame is hardly any bigger than today's micro four/thirds sensors but the lens does a good job carving out lots of detail while delivering good contrast.
To my eye the background areas are well out of focus and have a pleasing out of focus characteristic to them.
I couldn't have gotten a "better" image with any other camera. I might have gotten a different image; a sharper image, a more detailed image, an image with more dynamic range, etc. but this is the image I ended up with and have come to love over the years. As long as my subject matter is highly captivating to me no other metric or feature of photography matters.
The Pen F series of film, half-frame cameras of the late 1960's and 1970's were the precursors to a whole niche of current cameras. They are no less valid now than the Pen FT was to me back in the 1980's.
I never made a habit of dragging around a Hasselblad or motorized Nikon f4 when we were heading out to have a nice meal, just as I would never take a cellphone into a nice (or any) restaurant today. A small and sleek camera is acceptable, a giant, noisy power tool is out of place. And a ringing phone or a loud and loutish conversation is never welcome.
I love small cameras with big capabilities. Thinking about Sony RX100's today.... Nostalgia or practicality?