Portraits, Portraits, and More Portraits!

Art Duckworth gets a Windmill
Art Duckworth with his new wind turbine at his Apple Orchard Farm in Stanley on Saturday March 21, 2009. The wind turbine, originally installed in Intercourse Pennsylvania, was built in 1946 by the Aeromotor company and will pump water from a cistern for home and farm use.

Sometimes you don't get what you want--Sometimes what you get is even better!

Just last week I was thinking it would be nice to shoot some portraits--more specifically the environmental type. I enjoy the challenge of capturing a person's character and telling their story in a portrait. Sometimes a portrait can do something that straight new photos can't, and often they compliment one another to do even more.

This week I got what I wanted: two portrait assignments and a third that needed a portrait as part of the package. I already made a post about the first assignment on Thursday--the Faceless Portrait--but some of the others were an adventure as well.

Friday I went to shoot portraits of an athlete and coach of the year at a local high school. I had a ton of great ideas, and two friendly and eager subjects. Unfortunately my lighting equipment wasn't on the same page.

The PC to hot shoe adapters I use to trigger my flash units off camera gave out as I was taking test shots with my first set up. After losing valuable time fumbling with gear trying to improvise a solution I decided to just use the rather nice ambient light instead. They were understanding, and while I didn't get what I wanted I did get something very usable.

While I wasn't able to get the parts I needed before Saturday's assignment, I was able to work around it. I headed to Apple Orchard Farm in Stanley where Art Duckworth (top) was having a windmill installed, and I already had an idea in the back of my head.


The photo at top is an example of vision meeting reality. Typically, when I get a portrait assignment I have some ideas of what I want to do, but I often end up going a different rout after scoping out the location and meeting the subject. In this case the idea I had in my head was the only shot I took--and I got almost exactly what I wanted!

In photography there is a lot to be said for the little happy accidents, but it's always satisfying when I can come up with and idea and make it a reality!

Girls Player of the Year
All-Gazette Girls Player of the Year Shannon Smith helped take Forestview High School's girls and boys basketball teams to the state championship games in Greensboro earlier this month.

Art Duckworth gets a Windmill

Art Duckworth's dream of having a functional windmill on his Apple Orchard Farm in Stanley, NC became a reality on Saturday March 21, 2009.

Faceless portrait

Bessie Dickerson, who declined to have her face shown in this photo illustration, poses for a portrait behind the counter at the Steuart's BP station on Bessemer City Road on Thursday March 19, 2009. Dickerson was recently held up for the fifth time in ten years.

This may not be the most interesting picture in the world, but it was an interesting assignment. After her recent brush with crime, police advised Bessie Dickerson not to show her face in the newspaper. My challenge was to shoot an environmental portrait that showed who she was and what she did without actually showing her face.

I came up with several ideas during the drive to the station, and tried several, but this worked out best. light from the windows was sufficiently bright to give me a total silhouette, but I wanted more detail. I put my flash on a cord and held it up at arms length so that the cigarette rack cast a shadow over her face but the rest of the scene was well lit.

Looking at the LCD screen I believed I had her face very close to totally obscured. Looking at the pictures on the computer, however, I could still see her face too clearly. Enough light from the flash was bouncing off the counter to provide a little fill...BLAST!

Honoring the subject's wish not to be shown was the primary concern, so I had to burn down her face to get it completely obscured. Subtle burning and dodging is ethical in editorial photos, but in conversation with an editor we decided this photo just crossed the fuzzy line.

We were still able to use the picture, but as a photo illustration rather than an editorial photo. I very much wanted to pull off this effect in-camera, and while the final result very closely resembles the original intent of the image and the reality of the scene I had created with my flash position, ethics are something I don't play games with.

To me, the fact that I had to darken her face cheapens the image a bit. Lets face it, if you were to go that rout you might as well pixelate her face like they do on COPS. I wanted something natural-looking and more creative. I suppose there wasn't anything I could have done differently though, so it is what it is--a photo illustration.

The real challenge was finding a way to make the subject the visual focal point. The eye is naturally drawn to the brightest part of the frame, and with the dark face the subject sort of blends in with all the clutter on the counter.

Bird's Eye Basketball

East Lincoln vs Ashe County
Ashe County's Tommy Spagnolo, above, puts a shot up as East Lincoln's Keith Rendleman defends during semifinal game action in the NCHSAA Western Regional Basketball Tournament at UNC Greensboro's Fleming Gym on March 5.

I've long thought the coolest angle for shooting basketball was straight down over the basket (with behind-the-backboard remotes being a close second).

All too often, the action in the "paint" right under the basket gets so furious that all you can get a picture of is a jumbled bodies and flailing arms. Also, when shooting or going up for a rebound players are looking up--which results in a lot of pictures of chins and armpits when sitting on the floor.

But all that changes when shooting from above. A crowd under the basket resolves into a clear action shot where the players are looking straight at you during the peak moment in the action. Perfect!

There is a downside, of course. A big whale of a downside: shooting form above is often difficult or impossible.

There is usually no way to physically be above the basket, so the only way to get the shot--assuming you have remote camera equipment and permission--is to mount a remotely-triggered camera to the ceiling or basket supports. In many gym this is neither practical or possible, and the time involved usually isn't worth it for your typical prep game.

In arenas it's a little easier, as you usually have a catwalk in the rafters. The real trick with NBA and College games is getting the clearance. Over at Time Warner Cable Arena where the Charlotte Bobcats play, you have to rent a set of the house strobes (powerful flash units mounted in the ceiling) for $300 a day to get access to the catwalk.

So, for those of us who lack the equipment or funds to use remotes, the only opportunity to shoot basketball from above is in a gym that has a balcony or catwalk over the rim. Such facilities are a rare treat not to be passed up.

The Fleming Gymnasium at the University of North Carolina - Greensboro is just such a facility. I went there Thursday to shoot a local high school team in a playoff game, I couldn't conceal my excitement from the moment I walked in. Literally.
When you enter the gym through the main entrance you come out on a balcony that hangs out right over one basket and wraps around the top of the bleachers on both sides.
The only way I could have had more angles was if there were a clear floor that I could shoot up through!
I still had to get the more standard shots and celebration/dejection shots at the end of the game, so I couldn't afford to stay up top long, but I still managed to get a few keepers!

East Lincoln vs Ashe County
Rendleman puts a shot up over Spagnolo.
East Lincoln Wins!
East Lincoln players react as a teammate shoots a free throw with only seconds remaining in the semifinal game. East Lincoln defeated Ashe County 46-39.