The Eye of the Beholder


One of the really hard lessons we all need to learn is that everybody sees things differently.  I’m not talking about my seeing something and calling it a tree while you call it a peanut butter sandwich.  The reality is that we all have different experiences and education which significantly influences how we see things.

As a photographer, I always try to capture meaningful images.  Yes, what is meaningful?  If all I am trying to do is capture images for myself, the job is easy…shoot what I like, end of story.  Most of us need to have a broader view.  In some cases it’s because that’s what your customer wants, perhaps you’ve been asked to capture a family function or something else where many others are looking to you to record an event in a way that will be meaningful to many people.

Perhaps my first lesson in this arena came quite a few years ago when I was best man for a college buddy.  While the groom and I were waiting in the church, the photographer came to get shots of the groom.  The photographer really wanted to take some shots of the groom with his chin resting in his hand, looking whimsically skyward.  There might have been some poses that were more atypical of the groom, but we couldn’t think of any.  My buddy made it very clear to the photographer those shots were not going to happen!

One thing that I do like to do is to create several versions of the same image through differences in their treatment and ask a group of people one question…which do you like best and why?  The amusing part to this exercise is that there is almost never a consensus on one image or one reason why!

Following are three versions of the same image.  I took the shot about a year ago in the morning golden light.  The setting is on the grounds of a retreat house where I have been going every January for many years, so I always try to get shots that capture the spiritual feel of the place.

What I ask of you is to leave a comment telling me which you prefer and why.  (If you don’t like any, that’s fine, please tell me why.)  Depending on how many people read and respond, you might find it interesting to check back a couple of days after you post your preferences.

The first image is the original color image.  That is followed by two black and white treatments.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s call them 1, 2 and 3 starting with the color version.

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Taking this theme farther, we get into the idea of photographing people.  I know there is a very strong branch of photography around glamour shots.  These can be for magazine covers, product endorsements or publicity for the subject.  To me that category of image only shows a very superficial view of the person.  Those images are in the same category as the Barbie doll!  They are typically processed to remove some editor’s definition of every flaw, blemish and imperfection.  While they show that stylized ideal, to me they are not real!

To me the real art and beauty in photographing people comes in capturing the inner beauty and personality of the subject.  In many cases the person or image would be an absolute fail in terms of the mass market idea of beauty.  To me, however, that is the real beauty.

Capturing this kind of beauty, and again everyone sees it differently, is very different than how one gets the glamour shots.  I find that the way I get the best results is shooting candids, often from a distance so that the subject does not even know that they are bing photographed.  Yes I know there are huge discussions out there on the pros and cons of this, but that’s a topic for a different posting.  Almost everyone changes when they know that they are being photographed.  This is not so much based on deep rooted vanity so much as an inbred reaction from our society.

So what brings out the inner beauty?  First and foremost, the eyes.  Remember the old saying that the eyes are a window to the soul?  In this case that is absolutely true.  The eyes convey feeling, expression, mood and so much more.  The structure of the face, its features and complexities are the other big component.  In this environment, the nose typically is not the result of plastic surgery, often the glamour folks would scream that it needs that!  Is the skin smooth and flawless?  Not at all.  Life creates wrinkles, creases and blemishes.  Some would call them character lines.  These are the things that distinguish us.  They show that we have experienced life, both the ups and the downs and how they have effected us.  All of these little pieces help to convey a sense of dignity that tell our individual stories better than all the make up and retouching in the world.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

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This gentleman is one of my favorite subjects.  Take a good look at the image.  Is this classically beautiful? No. Does the face tell many stories of a life? Absolutely.  To me what makes this image special is the way it conveys a quite dignity.  I will leave it up to you to put your own story around this image.  That’s one of the great things about this type of shot.  To me images like this (even if I haven’t made them) are the kind that can pull at your heart strings, no words required.  That is one of the truly great things that a well made image can do better than almost anything else.

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Being on the Other Side of the Camera


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If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time behind the camera, taking pictures of others.  Being the photographer does have some advantages.  One disadvantage is that while I have lots of shots of other people, there aren’t many shots of me.

I recently realized that I needed a head shot for use on some social sites where such things matter.  As far as I know there are two ways to get these shots, do them yourself or ask someone.  As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m no fan of the classic “selfie”.  I put my camera on the tripod, set everything for taking the shot and with remote in hand got to work.  After a number of efforts and a fair amount of suppressed giggling by my wife, I gave up on “shooting myself” because based on the results that’s what I wanted to do!.

Plan B…I called one of the pros who mentor our photo club and asked if he would do me a favor and snap a few shots of me against one of the white studio walls, using my camera.  I was clear that I wasn’t looking for a portrait shoot with the requisite lighting and all that goes with it.  He said sure, come on over.

When I got there, he and his partner (both named Jim) were there.  They both stopped what they were doing and the next thing I knew the lights were coming out, there was a neutral background behind me and I was sitting on a stool with one foot on a footrest being posed.  One of the Jims is one of the best portrait photographers out there.  Of course, he was giving directions, taking the shots, etc.  I knew it was pointless to protest that this was way more than I was looking for.  Being serious professionals, anything they shoot will be done right or not at all.

When we were done, I thanked them most profusely and came home to take care of post processing.  Yes even when the best photographer in the world is taking the shots, images captured in RAW need some work.  Of course, there were a number of very nice shots (considering the subject).

I’ve worked on a lot of shots of others portrait, groups, candids, etc.  But somehow, seeing myself looking out at me from the screen was very different.  Yes I did do a little retouching, the same as I would for anyone.  No, I didn’t totally alter my appearance, it really looks like me.  The other challenge was putting a background behind me.  I know the technicals for doing that.  However, figuring out what background, colors, theme, etc. is something that I’ve never been very good at.  I finally got all the pieces in place and am pleased with the result.

I’ve gotten some very nice, positive feedback on the shots, so it was clearly worth the effort.  No, I’m not going to post the results here.  The image at the top is just a caricature of my reaction when people ask for it!  (It was taken at this year’s NJ Festival of Ballooning)

What about you?  What are your experiences with pictures of yourself?