Keeping a weather eye open

When I returned home from my beach expedition this morning, I decided it was time for one of those most English of activities; cutting the grass.

I changed into something suitably windproof and was in the process of filling my lawnmower with petrol when Gill opened the door to our garage to tell me: “I wouldn’t bother – it’s chucking it down!”  Sure enough the blue skies had gone and it wasn’t just rain that was falling but sleet, and at such a pace that even if it stopped, the ground was going to be too wet and soft for the lawnmower today.

Deciding it was time to process the morning’s pictures, I sat down with my laptop, aware of the already brightening skies, when I was surprised to hear the blast of the Souter foghorn!  Four seasons in one day?  Very nearly for whilst I was greeted by beautiful sunshine and cloudless skies when I rose this morning, there was a light dusting of snow to be seen on my garage roof, so I dressed for the cold and was right to do so.

My greater concern as a photographer though was those bright skies which to me are a nightmare.  They give bright highlights and deep harsh shadow, which the camera sensor cannot cope with.  OK if you want to shoot something with really high key effect like this, or to frame a silhouette against a brighter background, but to shoot a portrait you can do with a softer light.  Soft light lessens the imperfections of the skin (something I’m not to worried about with male subjects, who benefit from a more rugged look), but more importantly our eyes can cope with it without squinting.

Look at the picture I shot of Yaman yesterday.  His eyes are almost lost even though I turned him at 90 degrees to the sunlight, whereas this little guy seemed to have no problem at all!

So how do professional fashion photographers cope when shooting in exotic locations?  They want to evoke the sun-kissed shores and azure seas, but don’t want their highly paid modelling talent to be wincing at the brightness.  The answer is that they use scrims; large panels of translucent material that have the effect of diffusing the harsh light, reducing the brightness on the subject without losing it in the rest of the scene.  The perfect solution but for the fact that you need:

  • An assistant to hold the diffuser at the right angle and distance from the model, or
  • A large stand that can hold the panel in place with weights or sandbags to keep it steady.

Not really an option for me when shooting casual portraits as I carry neither stand nor assistant when out and about, and I dare say that my usual negotiation to photograph a stranger would become more challenging if waving a large white panel to make them even more self conscious.

So when I met Andy on the shoreline this morning, the best that I could do was to shoot him with his back to the light (still not enough to avoid the squinting with all that light bouncing off the silica at our feet) and then adjust the exposure so that the background “blew out” to white and he was properly exposed.  Not a bad outcome, but you lose any opportunity to sculpt the face unless you have a reflector (another impracticality in these circumstances)

When I met Geoff, he was partly shaded by the building he was standing alongside, and was staring into the light though sunglasses.  Easy to shoot, but the eyes, which play such an important role in the expression of an individual are lost behind the glass and plastic.  He had good reason to be looking out to sea though.  As a surfer he was assessing the conditions before getting changed and unpacking his board.  Wise move, for the waves were unspectacular except where the wind was smacking them against the pier.  Not somewhere you would want to be with your board.

As I returned to my car I saw that not everyone had Geoff’s prescience.