AKA Abraham Bacoln

Anatomy of a photo
May 1, 2009, 9:08 am
Filed under: photography

and by “a photo” I mean this photo:

I get people asking me all the time about my inspiration for my photos, or technique, or lighting, or all of the above. Most of the time I tell them that I do not decide on a photograph and then go create it, moving pieces around and setting lights and so forth. More often than not I just see an interesting scene or unusual lighting and I take a photograph because of that. You know what I mean? Opportunistic photography is what I practice.

Once in a while, though, I get home from work with an idea that has been running through my head all day and I have to piece it all together. I decided to describe for you what my thought processes are with regards to the setup.

1.) I have a face I make that is freakish and horrible and borderline gross. I’ve been meaning to photograph and document it for a while. For the rest of this discussion I will just refer to it as grossface. I may not describe it in full as … well … I’ll get to that.

2.) The restroom at work is large and spacious and has two sets of lights – one is the big bank of overhead fluorescents that really light up the room, the other is a group of small incandescent wall sconces, one on each side of the mirror, that aren’t very bright. I had turned on just the wall sconces. While standing there washing my hands I thought about grossface and decided that it would be a good day to photograph it. I made the face in the mirror and I thought that the way the light looked, two soft light sources directly – but not harshly – lighting the front of my face made for a good visual. It was especially strengthened by the darkened room behind me. Noted.

3.) While at work I occasionally thought about the rooms of my house and which ones had the least-distracting walls. I knew that for the photograph I didn’t want much of a background – I wanted the obvious concentration to be on the face, not the setting.

4.) Also worth noting is the fact that I had a big headache all day at work.

5.) I got home and started looking over the rooms of the house. The one big front room is very light. While I may have been able to take some paintings off the wall and create a blank background, I would never have been able to darken the rest of the room sufficiently as the curtains are too light and gauzy. The front room was out.

6.) The library was out because although there are heavy curtains there was too much unmovable stuff along the opposite wall.

7.) I settled on the bedroom – heavy curtains meaning I could make the room dark, and a more-or-less empty background. Achievement unlocked.

8.) At this point I laid down on the spare bed to talk to Casey for a while and rest my eyes because of my headache. However, I was excited because I knew that I had a good setup for the picture, and that I would have sufficient light for at least an hour, meaning I could take some time to get things together.

9.) Aaaaand then came the worry. What else will I do in the photograph? It’s not enough that I just make grossface, I need … something else. I have a bad tendency to feature something a little bit off-kilter in my non-spontaneous images. I like that sense of the one thing that creates a bit of a story in the viewer’s mind. But what would I use here? Every single time I’m in this position I feel like I have used up every prop item I own. Finally my eyes settled on Casey’s silk top hat and I decided that it would do for the time being unless I found something better.

10.) So let’s review so far. I wanted a picture of my face. I wanted glowing light from directly in front of me, and a dark background. I decided to add a hat for the hell of it. This left me worrying about my shirt. I have about five options when it comes to my upper torso in self-portraits: shirtless, tank top, t-shirt, dress shirt, dress shirt plus suit jacket. That’s it. I knew that t-shirt wouldn’t work with top hat, and dress shirt wouldn’t be sufficient, but dress shirt plus suit jacket wouldn’t be fancy enough for top hat. It’s a business suit, not a tuxedo. So … I settled for the tank top.

11.) Casey has generously agreed to be my assistant in my self-portraits. She is (of course) a thousand times better than using a tripod, especially because the tripod doesn’t ever fix stray hairs, or tell me to tilt my face more, or have me move one foot to the left because the line of my body is interrupted by the window on the building behind me, or whatever. In short, she is an incredible help.

12.) While Casey was finishing up a project of her own I got ready for the picture. I put on the wife beater (sorry, tank top) and hat and checked it in the mirror, but something looked wrong. I figured if a guy is wearing a top hat and a wife beater he’s probably at the end of a hard day. I pushed the hat back on my head, and my hair just looked too dry and boring. I wet the parts of my hair that would be wet with sweat after a hard day’s work and I felt that improved the image immensely.

13.) I went in the bedroom and pulled the curtains almost shut so that only a thin band of light was on me and the rest of the room was dark. The sun was just below the house behind us which meant that the light was direct but diffuse, not strong and harsh and shadow-causing. Perfect.

14.) I held the camera out at arm’s length to do a test shot while waiting for Casey. If you can remember back to number 4 in this list you’ll recall my headache. My test shot was of me in a top hat and wife beater looking sweaty, tired, and a bit … well … headachey. I fell in love with the weary look.

15.) Casey appeared and did what she does so well – took some shots, made adjustments, took more shots, etc. We took several with grossface but she as well as I had seen the weary look and liked it. We took some more with that in mind.

16.) Once I got the images into Adobe Bridge for review I decided that while the grossface picture was great, the weary picture was far better – the decision was made to completely discard the idea I’d had since number 1 in this list. This is the kind of thing that happens to me, photographically-speaking, all the time.

17.) I took the weary picture into Photoshop and did some minor adjustments, mainly regarding darkening the red channel so that the color and texture of my skin stood out more. I didn’t want perfect and airbrushed-looking (not that I ever do that anyway) but instead kind of super-real and detailed. Past that there was a little bit of desaturation and sharpening. I also chose to crop it a bit, to cut out just the top edge and side of the hat, to draw the viewer in and really fill the frame, and voila – the image as you see it came into existence.

And that’s it. That’s what I go through in taking a planned photo.

Thanks for reading this far, if you got this far. One day I’ll re-photograph grossface and show the world, but not today. That’s why I can’t tell you what it is – I don’t want to ruin the surprise. Also, I recognize that I could get that direct-lighting diffused darkened-room look with a ringflash, but I ain’t got no ringflash, sorry. I have to make do with the sun and curtains and so forth.

The point of all this was to show that even when I do take the time to set up a photograph I’m still an opportunistic photographer – when I see something that looks good I run with it, even if it means abandoning my previous idea.

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