Lessons in people pictures

Over Memorial Day weekend I was hired to do candid and portrait photography at a three-day LARP (one my husband plays in, which I’ve played in before, but not regularly).

This was . . . an adventure.

See, my usual attitude toward people photography is “I will wait here with my camera poised until you get out of the frame.” My tastes, as you can probably tell, lean firmly toward architecture, objects, and landscapes. Sometimes I can’t avoid having people in the picture, and every so often they add a great deal to the image — the dude in the punt in Cambridge (though I wish the two up on the wall weren’t there), or the guy walking in front of the church in Basel — but people are rarely if ever the reason I’m taking the picture.

But hey, it’s good to challenge yourself! The adventure aspects were more about trying to work within the constraints of the environment. I don’t own the nice lighting setup portrait photographers have, the kind that casts a bright but indirect light, so that people don’t wind up with weird shadows behind them or on their faces; we had to jury-rig something with clamp lights and fabric over them to diffuse the beam. (LED lights: no risk of the fabric catching fire.) And I learned some salutary lessons, too late to benefit from them this year, about going through and making sure the floor is as clean as possible, so I won’t later have to do twenty spot removals to get rid of detritus.

The candid aspect was the real challenge, though. My camera’s light sensor isn’t terrible, but it also isn’t as good as the ones pros have; if I raise the ISO too high (making the camera more sensitive to light), the resulting photo will be too grainy. You can partially compensate for that by dropping the f-stop (making the shutter open wider and admit more light), but that reduces the depth of field, which means either picking a focal length and trying to always stand about that far away from your subject, or a crash course in manual focusing at speed . . . which, since I’m usually photographing things that aren’t moving, isn’t a skill I’ve practiced much. And even those tricks couldn’t fully make up for the fact that the lighting inside the venue was, from the standpoint of a camera, not very bright. Which meant the shutter was open for longer (to gather enough light for a usable photo), which is, uh, a bit of a problem when your subjects insist on moving all. the. time. >_<

The result is that every time I found an interesting set of people to photograph, I wound up taking somewhere between three and eight of the same shot, sometimes more — trying to get one where nobody was blurred because they were gesturing or shifting their weight or turning to look at something nearby. Or where I myself wasn’t moving slightly and screwing up the shot, since carrying my camera around on a tripod would have been more disruptive to the game. And the third night, I decided it was worth shooting on burst mode, which means that “three to eight” estimate turned into more like “seven to fifteen” of each shot (but better odds of getting a usable one).

. . . for an hour each night.

Yeah. I took 624 pictures the first night, counting portraits; 883 the second night; and 1664 the third. Of which I have deleted more than 90%.

I’d asked my father for advice ahead of time, since he’s very good at candid street photography, and one of the things he told me was to keep hitting the shutter button: when people are active rather than posing, the shotgun approach is more likely to catch them with a great expression or gesture or standing in the right place to be framed by something interesting. And he’s right — but ye gods it makes for a lot of work after the fact, sorting through all the shots to find the ones that came out well.

I did learn a lot about both the shooting and the sorting, though. On the shooting end, I was unsurprisingly inclined toward the people with interesting costumes and makeup. People who sat near the set decorations or interacted with props also drew my eye; that added a visual element beyond “people standing around in a pavilion” that helped distinguish one shot from another. Expressive body language, too . . . but the flip side to that coin is the blurring mentioned above; I had countless photos where somebody’s hands were just smears, or their whole body if they were turning away with laughter or something. But sometimes the shots I chose to keep weren’t actually the crispest — I wound up deciding it was better to accept a degree of blur if the overall composition of the shot was more engaging.

The processing is a little more intensive, too. It probably wouldn’t be as bad if I were shooting in brighter conditions, but I find myself dropping gradients on the edges of the photos and then raising the exposure on the faces so the viewer’s eye will be drawn toward the people that are the focal point of the image, rather than being distracted by something in the background. And, of course, all the spot removal on the portraits, much of which I could have saved myself if I’d been more obsessive about cleaning the floor in the portrait corner. 😛

Anyway, it was a fascinating new challenge for myself as a photographer. One that isn’t quite done yet; I’ve gone through all the portraits and still lifes (because of course I took some shots of the set decorations, which didn’t move and therefore were a nice break from the rest of it), plus one of the three nights of candids. The other two nights have been culled down to a nearly-final set — I’ll make the final deletions once I go through to edit them. It’s time-consuming work, but on the other hand it’s work I can do with the TV on, so I figure that balances out.

2 Responses to “Lessons in people pictures”

  1. Trogdor

    Wow! That’s a lot of work, what, like 3000 pictures….very cool!

    • swantower

      Yeah, over 3100. But there really wasn’t any way around it; I just had to take a bunch and then delete most of them.

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