Documentary Portraits, 20 Years Later

Hello out there! This time I’m showing you some of my earliest work- portraits I took while working in developmentally disabled group homes circa 1998-1999. It was my early college years and I was full of social crusading juice. These were all shot with the blessing of the clients and their families, and I describe what I’ve learned in years since about what makes a good documentary portrait project. I also show you some of my recent work with my daughter Magdalena.

Help support the Primordial Creative studio via Patreon and check out our photography tutorials on our Skillshare channel!

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Finding Your Photographic Vision #1: Heroes

In light of the massive number of gear reviews and how-tos on YouTube, I felt like making a short vlog focusing on developing a personal vision.  In Part 1, I tell you about some of my own photographic heroes – Sebastio Salgado and Ralph Eugene Meatyard- and how they influenced some of my own work.

New Skillshare Tutorial Up on Creative Portrait Photography!

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I’ve just posted a new Skillshare on my favorite genre of photography – the Creative Portrait.  Photography has been my primary teaching focus for a decade and I truly feel the conceptual part of how to put together a shoot is overlooked.  Technical proficiency is important, but so are finding subjects, designing an approach to shooting them, using styling properly, etc. so I wrote an e-book about this last year and now have this Skillshare version of the book up!  The next 10 signups are free- no need to be a Skillshare member- after that, it’s behind the premium paywall.

Excerpt #2 from “Capturing The Face- A Guide To Creative Photographic Portraiture”

Capturing the Face coverOver the next few weeks I’ll be posting excerpts from my new e-book on creative portraiture, “Capturing the Face”.  The book is subdivided into the 10 considerations we need to make when we approach a stylized portrait shoot.  The full 44 page, $2.99 e-book is available for the Kindle here, and if you enjoyed this I encourage you to check out my image transfer workshop video tutorials on Skillshare!

This particular excerpt is a discussion of “Styling”:

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Styling was one of the most difficult things for me to get down in my own portrait photography, because I don’t know the names of particular fashions or hairstyles, and google image searches are a real crapshoot if you don’t know specific names.  I will work with stylists and send them inspirational imagery but that’s no guarantee that they know how to achieve the particular look, or if the model we are using has the right hair length/ size for whatever is available.  

The styling crew (hair, makeup and wardrobe) are the people who get the least out of any photos you take, so this is likely where some money is going to be spent.  Because I like a particular amount of production in my images, a hairstylist is top priority for a shoot- people generally cannot do their own hair as well as an actual stylist can, who has 360 degree access to the subject’s head. 

Makeup is something most men do not need for creative portraiture, and the majority of women I’ve worked with can do what I refer to as “going out on a date” makeup- stuff that looks great in real life but doesn’t communicate well in a photo.  An actual makeup artist can do film/ photographic makeup with astronomically expensive supplies and it’ll actually show up in the images.  Makeup artists are generally more costly than hair stylists, and if you have both hair and makeup on set, you’re easily adding an extra hour or two to the shoot time.  It’s a frustrating scenario to have a studio and models booked for 4 hours and hair and makeup eats up the majority of that time while the photographer stands around.

Beyond makeup is fx- bodypaint, gore, fake scars, adding jewelry, making people look frozen or cartoony.  The more specific the look, the more it covers, the longer it takes to do.  The bodypaint shoots I’ve done have ranged from 1 hour (a chaotic mess which still looked cool) to 6 hours (elaborate designs involving words).  Each time I work with an fx artist, I leave thinking it was worth it, but the process of getting it done is quite tiresome for all involved.

I don’t have too many words for wardrobe and prop styling- but one can see how budgets could spiral based on the styling alone.  It’s said that setting a film as a period piece makes the cost skyrocket in such a way that Hollywood does its best to avoid them.  If you do choose to create something that is period specific and requires styling, then there should be a lot of extra research to make sure everything fits the way it is supposed to.  A few years ago I came across a fashion shoot based on the D-Day, with a bikini model among  a platoon of soldiers who were all holding modern weapons but dressed in 1940s GI outfits.   

There was a time when my photoshoots were really over complicated.  Lots of patterns and textures and accessories and unique styling, and at the end of all that effort, I maybe got one portfolio piece out of it.  

The problems with a “busy” look are:

1. it’s expensive to get everything right and looking good, and if you start cutting corners (like getting stuff from the Halloween store for wardrobe), the whole scenario collapses like a house of cards.

2. the less versatile the look, the fewer outlets the final image has- unusable as gallery images, unusable as stock or mixed media pieces or anything really.

3. Busy compositions are overall less appealing than simplicity.  Think of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles vs. “Master of Puppets” by Metallica.  What song can you actually hum?  Or to put it another way:  who wants to live in a house full of junk?

This takes me to shooting things very cleanly in an almost “generic” sense.  It’s a lesson I learned from Richard Avedon, Man Ray, and other photographic heroes with a strong sense of design, and movies like Drive or Pacific Rim or Jaws.  Start simple, and build it up, rather than get super complex and have it fall apart like a house of cards.

Adobe Lightroom Tutorial: How to use “Transform” in Portraiture

I got a decent start on tutorials earlier this year, and then it was a bunch of silence as I made music videos and video art.  With classes being on break during the holidays I’ve been able to catch up with a lot of new tutorials- and I’m open to any tutorial requests!  If there is anything you’d like me to do a photography “how to” video on, respond in the comments below or email me at dbmillerphoto@gmail.com.

If you enjoy any of this work I encourage you to like and share it!  For more photoworks goodness peruse my Etsy shop, follow on tumblr and twitter and instagram, and rummage around on my full site.

How to use Tone Mapping in Model Photography

This video explores judicious use of HDR and Tone Mapping in model photography. I share my preferred method of tone mapping with an image I shot of model Aurora O’brien, and how to avoid exaggerated textures on human skin.

I teach workshops in photography and visual art at several Phoenix-area recreation and art center programs, and I love teaching photography so freakin’ much I’m recording tutorials of some of my techniques.  The goal is one tutorial a week so feel free to subscribe to my youtube channel or this blog for more virtual lessons!

Tasteful HDR

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Pano with no HDR

It took me a long time to warm up to HDR photography- I am in the camp of photographers who find a lot of those images tacky, unreal and overprocessed.  Sometime last year I started using Nik software’s HDR Pro Photoshop plugin, and mixing a tone-mapped image as a 30-60% layer on top of a “natural,” unprocessed image.  The final result shows some craft while staying believable and keeping true blacks.  These panos were shot at the Tonto Natural Bridge north of Payson, Arizona.

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Panorama with 50% HDR and 50% non-HDR image
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Full HDR panoramic