Sunday, 18 January 2009

Environmental Portrait Photogym

This weekend I joined the London Photographers Meetup Group for a photo-gym on Environmental Portraits. Tim Saunders, a professional photographer currently working for the NHS gave us a presentation, explaining what environmental portraits were all about, showing us both good and bad examples from his own portfolio. The presentation was very well structured, easy to follow and Tim's commentary kept the audience laughing and smiling all the way through.

After a Q&A session, Tim sprung the day's assignment on us. We had to go out into town and take portraits of people at work and they couldn't be candid portraits. Not only that, but we also had to try and get them to sign release forms that Tim had provided. As you can imagine, this was way outside many people's comfort zone, but to their credit, most of the attendees managed to get out there and ask people with varying levels of success.

As I work in the area, I had a good idea of where I could go to try and get some victims indoors so I could use my strobist kit. My first port of call was to be St Clement Dane's church on The Strand, but on the way I noticed that the Gents toilets were open, so I popped down there to use the facilities and to ask the attendant if I could take a portrait. Unfortunately she looked at me as if I had two heads and declined. By the time I got up the stairs and into the church, about 5 other photo-gymnasts were already there getting their release forms filled. So I pressed on asking everyone I could find if I could take their portrait. Its a good job that I am used to rejection, because it happened a lot, but other photo-gymnasts managed to get plenty of people to agree, one even getting 6 signed releases. Eventually I found a friendly cab driver who allowed me to shoot him.

I took an initial exposure without flash and as expected the contrast between the inside of the cab and the outside was too great. So I aimed an SB28 at 1/4 power through the cab windscreen, while shooting through the passenger door at f13 ISO400. I wanted lots of DOF so that you could see inside of the cab. At 1/200s there wasn't enough ambient light, so I dropped it down to 1/60s and got a nice balance between the inside and outside of the cab. This was the only shot I took of the day, which kind of reminds me of David Hobby's photo roulette.

After we got back, everyone's favourite image was loaded onto a PC and Tim made some notes about each one to give us a critique. He said he liked my image (but then he did like everyone's). In particular the balance of ambient and flash, but he suggested that there wasn't enough in the shot to show that it was a cab driver, and that I should have got him to have his badge showing in the shot. With hindsight I probably should have worked the shot a bit longer, but I was standing in a busy road and was feeling the pressure, not to mention risking being flattened by a coach.

It was a good day, a great learning experience, and it has also given me a little more confidence to go out and ask strangers for portraits, which is something I had planned to do last year but chickened out of, so watch this space.


  1. Nice work Paulo.

    I had a similar experience on a street photography course a couple of years ago but after the first few rejections the determination grows especially when others are busy photographing people.

    To do that with a remote flash set up must be much harder still as all the equipment will put more people off. And to get a model release is just incredible! I'm sure images like yours would sell well in picture libraries :-)

  2. Thanks Pat, The strobe was hand held, so not a huge deal. I could have used a strobe on a rope rather than radio.

    I regret to say that I didnt get a release for this one. :)

  3. Great shot there, Paulo. Glad you enjoyed the FotoGym too. Look forward to seeing you again at the next one. Tom ;O)