I learned a harsh lesson in portraiture this week: Digital is not the same as Print.
It’s a surprising realization that after four years of photography I’ve never actually printed my pictures. I’ve been satisfied with sharing them here, on Flickr and other social media. That changed when I committed to mailing prints back to the folks in Cuba.
But let’s rewind a bit.
The highlight of my recent trip was the opportunity to take pictures of people. I met members of the Chivirico community and with their gracious consent, took some wonderful portraits. As an additional bonus, on the last day our group had a full day model shoot with a troupe of professional dancers. It was an chance for composed shots with enthusiastic and ‘malleable’ subjects. As a gesture of appreciation I agreed to send printed pictures back to the community.
And here is where reality bites.
Portraits that looked perfectly fine on screen showed up harsh and unflattering in print. So many of these folks had been charming in person; I hated sending back ugly photos. I hastily adjusted the images, dialing back on clarity to soften the details and smoothe out natural skin imperfections. Softer, toned down images resulted with improved print quality. On screen the visual effect was almost as dramatic.
My lesson learned? For close up portraits, particularly those slated for print and people you’d rather not hate you, hold back on the clarity.
On the other hand, for my model pictures I allowed for more dramatic license. There were some pictures where I’d scaled back on the clarity, reprinted the image and then decided that I preferred the original.
For example this portrait of Graciano. I think the hard lights on his face adds a gritty edginess to the picture. It elevates it from being a nice shot to being an interesting one.
If you’re a fan of Street then you’ll know that the #1 Fear of all new and no-so-new street photographers is the Fear of Strangers. We all have a natural shyness about approaching strangers. But if you’re like me, who believes that the only interesting street shot is one with a face in it, then you’ll figure out how to overcome this.
I admit that its easier to take street portraits when travelling abroad. There’s a comfortable camouflage in being a tourist. With hat, camera and obvious unfamiliarity with the language it’s easy to smile, point and share pictures on your camera. Couple that with a few key words for beautiful, “Linda!” , “Bonito!”, “Muy hermoso!” and you have the magic for engaging with a stranger and making portraits.
Initial shot taken from a distance
Getting closer. Photo Credit: Gail Mager
My favorite shots are those that capture an expression that hints at the personality. Most of the time, I find it after after the initial photo, when I’ve come up close to share his/her picture on my camera’s LCD. The subject is now relaxed and I’m close enough for a very personal portrait shot.
If helps of course, to know a few more words of the language. That way, I can walk away with a bit more knowledge of the person. Granted, the knowledge may be incomplete and probably wrong (there’s a direct correlation between language proficiency and understanding) but at least I have something more to remember him/her by.
The Cable Guy’s name was Alejandro (or maybe it was Guillermo.) I’d been admiring his sturdy red truck. This being Cuba it was a solid, all metal 1960’s era vehicle, reconstructed from parts and a chimera of brands & manufacturers. Alejandro was in the telephone cable business, he hauled telephone poles, dug & installed them … or so I understood.
Ramon the Guitar Player serenaded me with Cuban ballads played on his front porch. He told me a long and involved story about his time in Santiago (it could have been Havana) where he met other chinos like me.
The Man in the Blue Box Balcony (sorry I don’t remember your name) was relaxing on his day off. He asked me if I was staying at the local hotel and when I said “sí”, said that he worked there too.
Abuelita was the charming grandmother ofTomás who found my walking group wandering in a dried out riverbed and invited us home for a visit. Abuelita wanted to give me a manicure. Tomás introduced me to santeria … and the topic for another post.
Have you walked through a warren of alleys, turned a corner and been startled by a cacophony of color, light and pattern? Visuals so loud and discordant that you had to blink three times to tone it down?
This happened to me in an outdoor market in Northern Thailand. I’d stumbled into hat makers alley. A place where ladies surrounded by gaily colored fabric, sewed ribbons of bubbles and baubles on to hats, aprons and vests. They draped themselves with vibrantly patterned scarves with no apparent concern for color harmony. The laughed and chattered among themselves, ignoring the tourist fidgeting with her camera and trying to isolate a shot.
Later when I uploaded my photos I ignored all of these photos. I had liked one but decided that the frame was too full with color and pattern. It was hard see the subject against the distraction of background.
Fast forward to years later. I’m searching through my catalog looking for interesting B&W portraits. I find this old photo and casually flick it to B&W. What a difference.
The moral of this story? Never discard photos that you like. Maybe your eye saw something your brain did not. Time will tell.
Whenever I travel I take lots of pictures. After the trip, it takes me a while to sift through them all. I discard the (many!) uninteresting and bad shots; select the context and story shots and choose the ones that I just plain like.
I always prefer pictures with people in them. Inevitably my favorites are portraits. For me, the sense of place is best captured in the expressions and character of its people.
Here are a few from my trip to Myanmar.
Peanut farmer (Bagan)
Market vendor (Inle)
Buddhist Nun (Bagan)
Betel leaf chewer (Inle)
Book Reader (Inle)
Cattle herder (Bagan)
For whatever reason, I almost never take pictures of children and cats. Don’t get me wrong, I love children and cats. Some of my favorite people were children once. Cats even. But as photo ops? Not so much.
Except for this one. This little monk had just gobbled up a special treat. He’d claimed a small cake included with the rice in the daily alms collection. I love the expression on his face and the overall delight in his posture.
My absolute favorite portrait from Myanmar?
That would be of the Cheroot smoker. It was taken on our first day in Bagan. We’d visited the early morning market and she was setup right at entrance. Over the next eight days I took hundreds of photos but this one, taken in the first hour, is my favorite.
Whenever I travel I take photographs. Whatever I photograph I invariably prefer the shots of people. In a recent trip to Laos, these are the photos that I favoured the most.
Although northern Laos is mostly mountain side and green, the villages and inhabited areas are stripped bare to the ground. Footpaths and passage-ways are made of packed earth and mineral rich dust paints everything a dull red brown. Flashes of colour from costume and clothing are a welcome relief.
Hmong girl in costume
Most of the houses in the hill villages are made of weathered wooden planks or woven bamboo walls. On the way to Phonsavon we visited a Khmu village which had a house freshly painted in vivid purple and brilliant blue. This young fellow was minding his siblings but he obligingly posed for me.
Our guide Vong, said that school is mandatory and as we drove through the regions of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, we certainly saw a lot of schools and teacher colleges. In the remote hill areas though, I suspect the schools are not as accessible. We saw young kids taking care of even younger kids while their parents worked in the rice fields. At barely seven years old, this little girl was carrying her baby brother while all the other kids were at play.
Kids grow up earlier here. According to Vong, the Hmong kids even earlier. We stopped at a Hmong village selling hand-embroidered textiles. Girls dressed in traditional costume posed for pictures and encouraged us to buy. This young girl, who looks about thirteen, would be married in the next year. Thereafter Vong said, she’d have babies of her own to look after.
Despite my photo collection, Laos is not entirely inhabited by children. Although, with a median age of 19 years, Laos does have the youngest population in all of South East Asia. Less than 4% of the population is over 65. This has more to do with Laos history than its average life expectancy, which is 62 years. To prove my point, here is my final and favorite shot.
An elf of an old man was sitting in a huge chair staring at the farang (foreigners) passing by. When I clackered the wooden cow bells at his stall, he hurried over to show his collection of traditional Lao medicine – snakes and scorpions preserved in rice whiskey. I didn’t buy his medicine but I did treasure his picture.